Bergamo, Brescia and Mantua, North Italy

Bella Italia. Yes, it is beautiful, but like so many of our planets’ amazing cities and towns, Italy’s are being loved to death. Never say never, but I don’t see myself going to Rome, Florence or Venice again in this lifetime.

Instead we visited three historic Italian towns in Italy’s north that warrant several days exploration each.

BERGAMO

With an international airport (Milan Bergamo) servicing the UK (and elsewhere) this is a convenient alternative entry/exit to Milan Malpensa.

Bergamo has always been a wealthy seat of power. We saw prosperity, care for the built and natural environment and some progressive policies. Divided by topography into a high and low city you can choose to walk up and down on green, well tended lanes or take the 130-year-old funicular. At the top the view cafe has been given a fresh face with a contemporary menu that includes lots of healthy vegan options.

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We were happy to wander the lanes and in and out of churches. We were told about some great hiking in the hills behind Bergamo so plan to return next year to try it.

BRESCIA

Close to Iseo, we spent a half day in Brescia en route to Mantova/Mantua. I had the bright idea of driving to the top of Panorama road for a view of the city. We had glimpses of views between expensive properties, but the road seemed to be used mostly as a training ride for masochistic cyclists. Sitting in a natural bowl as Brescia does, there is clearly a summer smog problem. Industry is still happening around Brescia and it seems a city on the move.

We had more success locating the city sights once we parked near the castle and walked up and around the grounds then down into the historic centre. Brescia (Brixia) was built on the ancient Roman road Via Gallica and was an important northern Italian city from the first century AD.

MANTOVA/MANTUA

We struck gold with this one. Our apartment was three kilometres from the city centre, but it came with antiques and bicycles. Across the road a cycle path wound past the lakes into town and we had the choice of two family-run restaurants either side.

Unlike Iseo, Mantua’s ring of lakes were artificially created as a defence in the 12th century. They provide a relaxing perimeter to the town enabling residents to walk, cycle, fish, picnic and play.

In 2016, Mantua became Italian Capital of Culture and in 2017 it was named the European Capitol of Gastronomy along with Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona. The Medieval and Renaissance centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007, usually a reason to steer clear, however there were no crowds. Certainly the cultural heritage of Mantua is vast. The powerful Gonzaga dynasty’s art collections are almost overwhelmingly gorgeous. The Palazzo Te, Palazzo Ducale, the Duomo and other churches are full of well preserved frescoes and other priceless artworks.

By way of contrast we visited the lovely old synagogue (by appointment). Like Jewish communities in many Italian towns and cities, the Mantuan community is dwindling. There are only about 100 practicing Jews left in Mantua. The history of the Jewish people in Italy makes for sobering reading (as does that of the Jews in Spain and elsewhere). I hadn’t realised until then the incredible power of the Pope to repress or raise up the status of Jews through centuries.

The shady colonnades of Mantua especially appealed. We found one particular bar-cafetaria-pasticceria, Caravatti, that became a firm favourite for rest breaks between cultural visits.

We will certainly miss Italy’s aperitivi with tasty nibbles included. Charmingly, should they bring meaty/cheesy nibbles they’ll quickly return with something vegan if requested. The UK was our next stop so we had occasion to contrast that generosity with Scotland and England’s sky high prices for drinks. And not so much as a peanut for your money.

This trip has cemented Northern Italy as a firm favourite for us.

Lago D’Iseo, Italy

Blame it on the wine. If Madonna Di Campiglio was Stuart’s responsibility then Lago D’Iseo was mine. Mine and Vanessa’s.

Vanessa P. my beautiful Italian flamenco friend born in Bergamo who lives in Rome. We have a ritual of meeting for one or two flutes of champagne in the Triana market when we’re in Seville at the same time. One day she surprised me by taking us to a different bar-restaurant because it served Francia Corta and she’d established that I’d never tried it. All I knew of bubbly Italian wine was Prosecco and Lambrusco.

What Vanessa gave me that day was truly fine Italian champagne. Delicious! Apart from the fact that it is from a small terroir in northern Italy and not from France it is the real deal, a twice fermented blend of 85% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero and 5% Pinot Bianco grapes methode champenoise/method Classico. I’ve been scouting for Francia Corta ever since.

To locate the growing region of Francia Corta look at the southern end of Lago D’Iseo and the tongue-shaped former morain of rolling hills that runs down towards Brescia.

We stayed in a hotel at Iseo on the southeastern side of the lake. More on that later.

Lago D’Iseo is smaller than Como, Garda or Maggiore, but that means it is less well known and far less crowded. No coach tour groups yippee! I wouldn’t go back to the Lake Garda roads if you paid me. Iseo is served well by train and bus and the council runs ferry services from the main villages dotted around the lake, as well as to the largest of the three islands on the lake, Monte Isola.

The fine spell that broke with a vengeance in Madonna on the Friday continued heavily in Iseo Sunday morning. Perfect weather for wine tasting followed by a long Sunday lunch. Clearly not a novel idea as more organised people than us had booked out the first three restaurants I called. We found a fourth, whose phone rang out, close to a Francia Corta winery with tasting room in Adro, called Ferghettina, jumped in the car and went straight there. Of course the restaurant was closed, however at that point our luck changed. A beautifully mannered young man, Daniela, welcomed us into an already crowded tasting room and proceeded to pour us nectar of the gods, their Ferghettina brut.

We worked our way through their tasting menu then Daniela took us down to see the Ferghettina archive of vintages carefully labelled and tended since their first vintage in 1991 and gave us a more detailed history of the family business which is run by Laura Gatton and her father Roberto who founded the vineyard with his wife Andreina. All this for free. I was moved to buy two bottles to set by in Edinburgh for a special family occasion. Bound to be one before too long!

Daniela offered to help us find a lunch restaurant and after a couple of rebuffs he got us into Dispensa Pane e Vini, a few minutes down the road. This establishment is a combination boutique wine store, bar and gourmet restaurant. Daniela had done us proud.

Sunday afternoon the sun came out. We walked a section of the Via Valeriana pedestrian way from Pilzone to Pisone. It has fine views of the lake as you walk alongside well tended gardens, fields and veggie beds. Some people keep a couple of sheep or donkeys to manage the grass.

The weather held for the whole week, allowing us to indulge in more hiking and biking with delicious aperitivi and dinners on the waterfront.

I’d been in touch with a local cycling guide, Nicola (another young Italian who is a ski instructor in winter and cycling guide in summer). Nicola specialises in Francia Corta tours by bicycle. As we had already done a tasting we were happy just to ride his 23k route (with a short coffee break) and hear more from Nicola about the history of this wine and see the vineyards, villages and corn fields up close. The final section runs through the Torbiere del Sebino wetlands nature reserve.

This time there was no battery assistance so we had to work a bit harder, but Nicola was an attentive, careful guide. The only time we needed to take special care was right on 12md when workers poured out of a factory in small, fast cars, racing off for their one hour lunch break.

Next day we took the ferry from Iseo to Sensole to hike up to the highest point of the Island, the Ceriola Sanctuary. This is an aerobic 40 mins up but the view and picnic lunch on the summit was well worth it. We meandered down via Olzano and Carzano along the eastern side of the island before catching the ferry back from Sensole. If you fancy supporting local handicraft some retired fishermen make natural fibre hammocks and sitting shopping bags. Nice memento for 10 euros.

We enjoyed the experience so much we returned to Peschiera for dinner one evening. A five euro return ferry runs every 20 minutes the short hop from Sulzano to Peschiera. Mi Lago restaurant has been operating in the same place overlooking quayside for 100 years. When they renovated in 2015 they uncovered and preserved an ancient well. Certainly we enjoyed our meal there very much.

For our final hike we decided to wing it and drive through Francia Corta until we spotted a walking track pointing up hill. Good in theory, but I had forgotten how narrow the roads get in small, elevated villages… Even with both rear vision mirrors retracted I was perilously close to scraping both sides of the one track road.

Eventually I found a tiny space to turn around in and held my breath as I repeated the exercise downhill. Unscathed we parked in a large factory car park and started the trek uphill. At first we followed a green sign for a castle then when those disappeared we switched to red signs for Scala Santa, the staircase of the saint. This consisted of a stepped, stony path leading straight up for 40 minutes to a large cross atop a small shrine. People had placed photographs of deceased loved ones inside the shrine. Maybe some of them had died climbing the hill?

While I was catching my breath and contemplating this a young dad and his staggeringly beautiful daughter reached the shrine from a different track that seemed much gentler. I asked him where they’d walked from and he said “Colombaro”, the same village as us. Perfect, we could return an easier way.

Not sure what happened, but at some point we turned off that path and ended up meandering across and down the mountain. The recent heavy rains had washed out walking tracks and made other trails. Trail signs were few and far between. The geology of the mountain was such that the top section is composed of either white or pink stratified stone, something between marble and chalk. The movement of the Earth’s crust raised it to a 45 degree angle which, as it wore away, made for challenging stepping. What should have taken half an hour took an hour and a half. No matter, we had our picnic lunch beside the lake at Clusane Sul Lago watching a 60ish chap swim across from the other side of the lake with an orange buoy tied around his waist. Admirable.

Our final afternoon I had the dubious honour of driving around the lake to see some villages we hadn’t yet visited. The wind had picked up and we watched small sail boats passing. Sarnico with its wide pedestrian esplanade seemed the most appealing. Its San Marco bar deserves a special mention.

The lakeside road in places resembles the Amalfi coast except narrower and several of the tunnels need urgent upgrading. Hard to believe but there is no separate cycle lane or path, so cyclists (some in dark clothes with no lights) share the tunnels with tankers, trucks, buses and motor homes. You have been warned.

Yes, he walks on water.

I think the rental companies should present foreign customers with a special honorary Italian driving licence (verified by their rental GPS system) upon returning their cars unscratched. Our Golf had 13 dings on it when we picked it up and 13 when we returned it!

Accommodation Note

We stayed at the International Hotel in Iseo which seemed distinctly non-International at first. Breakfast was a feast of plastic wrapped, highly processed, sugared, fatty crap plus white bread rolls and silty coffee.

When I politely inquired about possibly getting some tomatoes and olive oil for future breakfasts (our standard vegan breakfast in these situations) I was told by the duty manager in Italian, “I don’t speak English”, I tried again in Italian and was told in perfect English, ‘We are not a restaurant.’

Next day however the two fat nonni who run the show brought me a big bowl of tomatoes and a large bottle of olive oil plus warm soya milk.

The day after they added steamed cauliflower.

Next day I had all that plus courgette sautéed in olive oil.

Thus it continued for four breakfasts. The morning I left I planted a loud kiss on each of their chubby cheeks and we parted friends.

Eating Out

The two lakeside Iseo restaurants we recommend are Platana on the eastern side of Iseo near a children’s playground and Leon D’Oro on the western side of Iseo. Platana has the advantage of the better sunset view.

Picnic Supplies

Italmark supermarket (open 8-8 every day of the week) on the Iseo ring road has everything you could want for a picnic, or there are small shops dotted around central Iseo, but they close at midday.

Other things to do in Iseo

You can rent SUPs and small boats at a couple of places around the lake and there are plenty of cycle rental shops.

Nicola Pica, our bike tour guide, is contactable at info@franciacortabiketour.com

Madonna di Campiglio, the Dolomites: Mountain hiking and biking Italian style

This leg of our two-month trip was all down to Stuart so he is guest blogger.

Our most recent stop was Madonna Di Campiglio in the Dolomites. I had read that it is one of the most beautiful places to ski in Europe and if its beautiful in winter surely it would be summer. And it is.

We arrived at the family-owned Hermitage Biohotel on a sunny afternoon and were immediately in awe of the view from our bedroom. Pine covered mountains rose from the valley floor to 2500m. Above the tree line the seemingly barren rocky crags so enigmatic of the UNESCO-listed Dolomites soared.

Only in Italy would you find an aquatic bicycle….

Next morning we were introduced to Mario, quickly renamed Super Mario, our cycling guide for the day. The itinerary agreed, we set off on our ascent to a lake. I had a wonderful time chatting to the 28-year-old ski instructor/hiking/cyclist as we pedalled up forest trails through kilometres of dense pine trees. Gradually the incline increased and Mario grew less and less chatty and was clearly struggling to keep up the conversation. Arent ebikes wonderful!? (Mario was unaided by any excited electrons).

Meanwhile Sharon was less happy. Having nearly been knocked off her bike by a rogue motorised vehicle within sight of the hotel she was in no mood to be trifled with. Super Mario was clearly treating our expedition as some kind of training ride. Anyway we eventually reached the lake which even I had to admit was less than awe inspiring covered as it was in algae.Sharons mood was further aggravated on our descent by some German mountain bikers passing her at high speed without so much as a Guten Morgan or achtung. The descent completed we were greeted with the news that we were now going to climb up another mountain for five kilometers, but then there would be lunch in a mountain refuge. This was the part of the day the clients had been looking forward to. So much so that we left Super Mario in our dust; never mind that we were using sport mode on the trusty ebikes.

Sadly lunch beside the Fortini cable car proved to be something you might find at a British motorway caf. An hour later we thanked Mario and headed off to recover in the hotel spa.Next day the sun was shining again and we set off up the same Fortini lift to the 2500m Groste station a chilly but starkly beautiful peak. We walked and clambered more or less on our own to the Tuckett Refuge, some 90 minutes from the lift. The scenery was spectacular and it was good to see the high elevation flora in good health and seemingly spreading further up the mountains. We watched roped climbers inch their way up the towers above the refuge.

Following refreshments we continued to traverse the mountain range then take a detour to get a better view of the westerly peaks. Another hour down the mountain we eventually reached the tree line just above our lunch stop at Canisei Refuge. placeholder://

Post lunch we returned to the village via the most glorious natural alpine garden, descending some 200 meters with snow melt tumbling over a multitude of rocks and precipices with several waterfalls of at least 50 metres. A great day other than the 90 minutes it took to do two short bus rides back to our car at the lift.

Next morning we woke to find ourselves in the clouds and rain pummelling the roof. This put our trekking plans to bed, and Sharon put herself in the same place. Later in the day the clouds lifted and we were gifted the view of those same awe inspiring mountains dusted with snow.Sadly next morning it was again raining so rather than explore what promised to be another magnificent trail it was time for Fam. Stuart to head off down the valley to seek the sun at one of Italys lesser known lakes.

PS Note that despite the daily exercise we left carrying at least two extra kilos from the fine vegan food and wine the Hermitage served.

Valencia and La Albufera

Nostalgia and a Spanish TV drama series, the two reasons we hung around Valencia for three nights after arriving from Ibiza via Las Islas Columbretes. Yes, I am that shallow.Many moons ago we overnighted in Valencia during our first Spanish motorcycle tour. We stayed in the old town, I fell in love with its white stone plazas, sunshine and relaxed style and I vowed to come back.

 

More recently our national treasure, SBS, the Australian multicultural broadcaster, showed The Pier/El Embarcadero and I devoured the entire first series. Im hanging out for the continuation. 

 

The action in this love triangle/murder mystery moves between cultured Valencia city and the wilder wetlands, where they still undertake rice cultivation, and the adjacent beach area called La Albufera, just south of Valencia.

I think I like ‘The Pier’ particularly because the main protagonists are two strong women.

I have a ceiling on accommodation costs (unlike Stuart) so chose a modest apartment in central Valencia, La Roqueta, near the main train station. It happened to be three flights up a narrow staircase without a lift or a fire escape, but hey, we had two bedrooms, kitchen, washing machine and full bathroom, it was great value and I’ve lived to write about.

We walked and visited the main market, churches (including seeing the actual Holy Grail) and the cathedral, caught the metro to the main marina of Americas Cup fame for sundowners overlooking the sailboats coming in to anchor, and dined on vegan paella at the beach with our toes almost in the sand.

Sunday we rented bicycles and pedalled south on cycle paths via the green belt and the Biopark as far as our little legs would take us before hunger pangs hit just short of La Albufera lake. We found a rather good beach restaurant, La Duna, and replenished our blood glucose before returning whence we came. It was nice to watch large Spanish families coming in for multigenerational lunches.

On the way ‘home’ we paid more attention to the architecture and found echoes of our Sydney Opera House in the shell-like shapes of the Biopark. Certainly the complex is impressive and is drawing crowds.

If I have one reservation about Valencia its one I am sure many have commented on for decades, if not centuries. The drainage is appalling. Every vent in the street emits noxious odours. As it was the end of summer the drains were probably at their worst. Still, its a small price to pay as it’s a magnificent green city with an abundance of venerable, lovely trees.

But time was up for Spain, next stop Italy!

Ibiza to Valencia on SV Tilda

‘Ibitha’, says my partner in crime.

Isn’t that the tiny Spanish island single young people jet off to for all night trance dancing, raves, and all manner of behaving badly? Who over thirty even goes to Ibiza?!

This was my response to Stuart’s suggestion that we fly from Edinburgh to Ibiza (after catching up with Tristan, Jenny and Miss E) to board a yacht. Stuart discovered a brilliant site, Sailsquare, that lists boats and skippers worldwide available for charters, both bareboat and skippered, as well as ‘book a berth’. Sailsquare was offering a one-week trip on a 62-foot monohull, Tilda, owned and skippered by a 43-year-old Italian, Fabrizio. The itinerary started in Ibiza then took in some coastal sailing and ended in Valencia, Tilda’s home port. The dates were right and so was the price.

That’s how we arrived in the old town of Ibiza on the south side of the island two nights ahead of embarkation. We wandered the tidy, attractive marbled streets and esplanades, lingered over a long lunch, checked out the yachts in the marina, swam with locals at the clean city beach and climbed up to the fortifications above the harbour.

Tilda was anchored off San Antoni harbour on the northern coast, a 40-minute taxi ride from Ibiza town. We arranged a pick up time Saturday afternoon with Fabrizio and waited for him on the quay. He arrived in a zodiac driven by Eric, his first mate, a Dutch-Italian speaking 19-year-old family friend and aspiring sailor who’d spent the past three summers on board Tilda.

Fabrizio and Eric both live close to Lake Lugano in Switzerland where Fabrizio has a sailing school. Fabrizio is fluent in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and English, with a working knowledge of German.

We chatted and waited a few minutes for the fifth member of our party, Nuno, a radiologist, to arrive from Lisbon. Nuno is a cousin of Fabrizio’s Portuguese wife so it felt like we were joining a family holiday rather than a commercial cruise. We learned that Tilda was built in Southampton in 1983. Fabrizio bought her six years ago after she’d been languishing unloved in Southampton for two years following her owner’s stroke in the middle of the English Channel.

Eric took all our luggage to the boat while the rest of us went shopping for provisions for the week, cost-shared between Nuno and us. We would also be sharing the cooking and cleaning up. Fabrizio, Eric and Nuno were very easy going about meals. Over the course of the week we all took turns cooking basic vegan-vegetarian with some sides of cheese, fish, cold meats etc. and everyone ate well.

Once on board we quickly stowed the cold foods and motored a short distance north to a quiet cove to anchor for the night. Fabrizio keeps trip costs down by avoiding marina fees, but guests do have to pay the fuel costs, which if there is little or no wind (which we experienced most days), can mount up. Dinner that first night was at Spanish time, 10pm.

Our cabin, the master en suite, was the most luxurious we’ve ever have had, including on the Queen Mary. Stuart keeps telling everyone it’s bigger than our bedroom at home. Fabrizio had spared no expense in Tilda’s full refit.

The north coast of Ibiza is indented with lovely beaches and coves with no high rise buildings to spoil the views. With an easterly of just a few knots we had to motor sail the next couple of days. Nuno recently completed his coastal skipper qualification so he was keen to log some more miles at the helm. All very relaxing.

Come Tuesday we were ready for the first leg northwesterly across the Balearic Sea to the Columbretes Islands, a nature reserve. The forecast weather change came in the morning as predicted with an increase in wind and some rain. What hadn’t been predicted was the strength of not one, but two storm cells that passed either side of us at sea. We watched lightning strikes on both sides simultaneously and the wind was 25 knots gusting to 30. Seas were 2-4 metres. Two random waves dumped in the cockpit and caught Stuart full on. His reaction, ‘Did I ask for that?’ became a catch cry. It was cold, wet sailing, but nothing to what I got used to during the Atlantic crossing.

I was using the wonderfully effective Scopoderm patches, Nuno was on Stugerone and Fabrizio and Eric had been at sea for five weeks so they should have been fine. Stuart as usual was okay, but even he got a bit queasy making our lunch wraps and Eric started feeling miserable.

Fabrizio had set up watches, three hours on for Stuart, Eric and me alternating with three for Fabrizio with Nuno, so when my three hours was up I went below to sleep. (As I was used to doing on Skyelark). The others stayed on deck. Apparently while I was asleep they had an interesting time as when I came up two hours later there were two reefs in the main, the Yankee was half furled and the chaps were looking rather grim.

Happily for us the storm blew past, and we made good time with a top speed of 11 knots, but unhappily for Ibiza it dumped a huge amount of water on the coast and flooded Ibiza town. The flooding made the BBC News.

The sun was well down by the time we came into the crescent of a caldera that created Grossa, the main island of the Columbretes. The lighthouse atop Grossa has been guiding sailors for more than a century. We were allocated a mooring buoy, a treat after three nights anchoring on sandy bottoms with the threat of dragging in the night (one of our neighbours did just that the second night out and bounced off us at 5am).

Everyone slept well, Eric was the last to appear next day at 11am.

The Columbretes comprises seven jagged chunks of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea. We moved on to the leeward side of another of the other islands to explore it by stand up paddle board and snorkeling. Fabrizio worked on repairing a hole in the high pressure hose of the watermaker. He had to give up after the repair held, but the hose blew in another place. Water rationing for us! Not a problem as we were swimming off the boat every day followed by a freshwater rinse on the duckboard.

Fabrizio arranged with the marine park’s guide to take us on a tour of the main island next day. Maria led us up the high, narrow spine of the island explaining the geomorphology, history and biology of the place. Interestingly the Columbretes is a critical staging point for thousands of tiny migrating birds on their way from Europe to Africa. Also 50 pairs of falcons inhabit Grossa. At any one time we could see ten or so falcons hunting over land and sea.

The weather forecast was more settled, but our skipper was almost out of action. At some point on the day of the storm he’d strained his back and it had now gone into spasm. He took medication and rested, but rather than wait until Friday to finish the crossing to Valencia we set off Thursday afternoon and motor sailed to Burrianuova Marina, 60K north of Valencia city. It was dark as we pulled into the quay to refuel. The cap on the second tank refused to budge, even with the application of much male effort. Fabrizio heated it with a blow torch several times without success. Finally Stuart’s suggestion of tapping the cap with a metal hammer succeeded in freeing the jam and we could finally fill the tank. That Materials Technology degree wasn’t a waste!

Fabrizio then smoothly backed Tilda into her winter berth. Within ten minutes we were all on the quay lurching on wobbly land legs towards the seafood restaurant for a celebratory end of trip dinner. We’d all enjoyed the week. Fabrizio is a competent, calm skipper who can crack jokes in four languages. We’d happily sail with him again.

Next morning morning we helped get the zodiac up onto the deck and, stripped and cleaned our quarters. Fabrizio was feeling a little better so we didn’t feel too bad leaving the three of them to finish washing down Tilda. We had accommodation booked in downtown Valencia and were looking forward to a long hot shower!

PS Apologies for the slightly blurry images, my iphone was encased in a lifeproof case.

Photo credit for the nice crew shot goes to the pump attendant who used Nuno’s camera.

Falkirk: More than Irn Bru and Football

I had grand plans for my second minibreak from grandmothering. Cycling the Union Canal towpath from Edinburgh to its end at Falkirk is high on my travel wish list. I even brought my cycle helmet from Australia. Come Friday the weather forecast was favourable, but by the time I’d finished up and packed an overnight bag the sun was high in an unclouded sky and it was a distinctly non-Edinburghian 29 degrees centigrade. I couldn’t face five hours in the saddle so I swallowed my pride and hopped on a train from Haymarket. I was in Falkirk in thirty minutes and checked into the Cladham Hotel in forty.

 

Post siesta I ambled the ten minutes into the town centre to catch the number three bus to Helix Park see world famous Kelpies. We’d glimpsed these magnificent steel sculptures from the highway on previous road trips, but to stand and stare and walk around them was mesmerising. They look so alive!

Scottish sculptor, Andy Scott, has captured the essence of those mythical shape shifting water spirits, the Kelpies, and given a respectful nod to Scotland’s horse-powered heritage. Their setting in an expansive green park surrounded by still water and beside a canal is exquisite. Helix Park with its swimming lake, adventure playgrounds, cycle and skate paths and cafes is a terrific family destination.

A wander around the historic town centre, including Tollbooth Street, the shortest street in Britain, and past the steeple followed, then it was time for a Thai dinner.

Next morning I had three more local places on my ‘must see’ list.

 

The Falkirk Wheel is another bus ride from downtown, this time the number six. The Wheel is a massive 2001 Scottish engineering marvel that joins the Union Canal from Edinburgh with the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow. It rotates a water-filled section to lift and lower boats and barges 24 metres. Two locks complete the final eleven metres height differential of the two canals. Previously a series of eleven locks was necessary and took all day to traverse. Sadly those locks went out of use in the 1930s.

Close by the Wheel is a well preserved section of the Antonine Wall, a Roman-built turf fortification that ran east west from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. The wall, with its 16 forts and many fortlets, was the most northerly demarcation of the Roman Empire’s Britannia. On the other side was Caledonia and the wild northern tribes. 

 

Construction started in AD142 and took twelve years. I walked in the footsteps of legionaries who guarded this far flung outpost of Emperor Antoninus Pius. The wall held for eight years at which time the Romans withdrew south to Hadrian’s Wall. The oldest fragment of tartan cloth in existence today was found buried with some coins by the Antonine Wall. I wonder how they came to be there.

My final stop was Callendar Estate back in town. The Scots do social housing rather differently from what I’m accustomed to. In Falkirk 16-storey identical white tower blocks of flats are dotted along the border of the 170-acre park and woodland. It’s heartening to see mown grass and tidy trees surrounding the towers, but it also seems a bit sterile with no gardens, play grounds or much in the way of amenities near the flats.

 

Callendar Estate has 76k of well used cycle and running paths. On the Friday they hosted a televised orienteering competition and when I visited Saturday morning runners were just finishing up a busy five and ten kilometre park run.

Callendar House is a magnificent 19th century rebuild of a stately home that was already in existence in one form or another for five hundred years. Notable visitors included Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Oliver Cromwell, and Queen Victoria. Falkirk Community Trust is now responsible for the upkeep of the house and museum and entry is free. I confess disappointment that the permanent museum is series of didactic wall boards covering the social and economic history of the regions with a very few display cases. Nobody wants to stand and read masses of text. The temporary exhibition, entitled “Gladiators” costs five pounds.  

I quickly repaired to the tea room on the upper floor. Decorated in a style reminiscent of the Hydro in Peebles, with velour covered easy chairs in greens and blues and white marble coffee tables, they serve a light breakfast and lunch menu with a range of traditional cakes.

All boxes ticked I walked back to Falkirk High Station for a swift return to Edinburgh and our darling girl. Only six more days until I head home to Gypsy Hill.

In case you are wondering what on earth has happened to Stuart, fear not, he is very well and occupied with supervising the installation of new flooring (on top of the magnesium oxide boards that we discovered were not fit for purpose), continuing the war of attrition on the weeds and keeping our newly planted trees and vegie garden alive. In his spare time he plays competitive croquet and table tennis.

Summer country ceilidh and Cupar Arts EDEN

I’m being whirled and flung about the room at high speed by a handsome young man in a light green and fawn tartan kilt that shows off his slim hips and shapely calves. On and on the band plays and we seem to get faster and more daring each time we take a turn at twirling up and down the line of dancers who clap us enthusiastically. 

 

At last the band stops. I bob a curtsey and my partner, bows. We’re both sweating and gasping for breath but grinning like clowns. Ceilidh dancing has that effect. It recognises no difference in age or ability. If you can move you’re expected to make up the numbers and dance. Hence my boldness in asking young twenty-something Jake if he would partner me for Strip The Willow. To dance it full torque requires a strong and lively partner!

 

And lest you think me some aged marvel at 63, I am completely outshone on the dance floor by a 99-year-old great grandmother who shuffles into the hall with her walker then abandons it to partner her daughter for the Gay Gordons.

It’s summer solstice in Cupar, a quiet country town in the county of Fife, Scotland. I am reliably informed by a resident that Cupar means, ‘a cooper’, i.e. one who makes whisky barrels, but research reveals is to be a Pictish word meaning, “where two rivers meet”. The Eden River (I could not find any signs of a second river) flows through town. A riverside promenade borders a tidy park and the path continues into meadows and wild woods. Folks have lived in this charming place since the 7th century.

 

The community arts festival, Cupar Arts EDEN, is winding up their two-week program with a fantastic, young ceilidh band called Skyrie who hail from Fife. Two exceptionally talented fiddle players, a guitarist and percussionist work hard for their money. The first hour is a performance of original and traditional tunes, then after a short pause we launch into two hours of dancing. Oh, how I have missed it!

For me it’s the perfect break from grandmothering duties in Edinburgh – art, music, and dance with a bit of sightseeing in St Andrews twenty minutes away by bus.

All the festival artists exhibiting are locals, including much-loved comedian Phill Jupitus, whose ironic collages manage that elusive trifecta of being beautiful, clever and funny. Phill’s “Van Gogh Day Off” is coming home to Gypsy Hill with me. Phill had work committments away from Cupar, but all the other artists displayed in the main venue (which doubled as the dance hall), the historic corn exchange, are on hand to chat to and returned in the evening for the Ceilidh!

 

Celie Byrne’s portraits capture local people from all walks of life. Mark Small and Carl E. Smyth’s  ‘Sonic Chamber’ is a mesmerising sensory experience, whilst Mike Middleton’s satirical tapestry project sticks several large pins in puffed up politicians and pious pundits.

‘Van Gogh Day Off’, by Phill Jupitus

Glasswork inset into stage, by Mark Small

‘The Sonic Chamber’ by Mark Small and Carl E. Smyth

Postcard fragment of the ‘Trumped Up Tapestry’ project by Mike Middleton

Strolling the streets almost every shop window and cafe has artworks on display; ceramics, glass, paintings and photography. They’re a creative bunch these Cupars.

2019 was only the second annual festival, but organisers seem to have hit on a successful formula and I expect next year will be even bigger and better. If you’re looking for an authentic Scottish cultural experience Cupar Arts EDEN is the place to be.

And why not buy a kilt if you think you have the legs for it?

There is a sequel to my purchase of the Phill Jupitus collage. The Wednesday following my weekend away a large envelope arrived by post. I excitedly opened it to find this collage rather than ‘Van Gogh Day Off’. Somehow the wrong artwork had been sent. I contacted the organisers and received a prompt reply to say the problem would be swiftly rectified. I had my doubts.

At 6pm the gate bell rang when Tris, Jenny and baby E were in the garden and I was in the kitchen. Tristan called up to me so I went to the head of the stairs as a man came up them. I recognised Phill Jupitus. He was carrying an envelope. I had to look over his shoulder to check there wasn’t a film crew following him!

Phill had brought my collage so we swapped them and he stayed for a chat. Interestingly he’s starting art school at university in September. This is his first chance to study art formally. He is a true gentleman.