The little town that could

Do you drive past or through small country towns and wonder what on earth sustains them? What keeps them ticking over? Why are they here? A lot of country towns in Australia are doing it tough – thanks to drought; debt; lack of employment opportunities; or simply by being bypassed by the highway. Benalla, in north east Victoria, suffered the highway bypass many years ago and became too easily forgotten by many motorists roaring up and down the Hume Highway (or Freeway as it is now called).

Once upon a time the town was known for its beautiful rose garden, but now, through the initiative of some creative locals, it has seized the mantle as the self proclaimed Street Art Capital of Australia.  In 2015 this group of locals got together, and with the help of generous sponsorship from local businesses and residents, created The Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival. The idea was simple and drew inspiration from towns such as Georgetown in Penang – let’s invite street artists to the town, give them a wall, some paint, accomodation and food and let them loose over a weekend. And the result in that first year was 14 murals created by some of the world’s most renowned street artists. Despite some initial resistance from residents, the street art idea has taken root and the Wall to Wall Festival has become an annual event.  But, it is not just confined to street art. Not to be left out, some of the old wheat silos in the region have also been used as large scale canvases.  So, in short, there is now plenty to see in the little town of Benalla, providing a real reason to detour off the Hume Freeway.


We launch our latest adventure with lunch at Fowles Winery at Avenel (corner of Hume Freeway and Lambing Gully Rd).  Fowles is a routine coffee stop stop for us when making the 5 hour trip up to Mt Hotham, but it has been a while since we have eaten there. The menu offers plenty to choose from, and it was all yummy, and delightfully washed down with a glass of Fowles wine. The winery is undergoing expansion works so the front looks a little barren, but someone in the landscaping department obviously has grand plans as there is now a monumental wooden archway dissecting the carpark. It will be interesting to follow its progress over the years.

From there it is on to Benalla, but we don’t stop in the town. Rather, we are on the hunt for the newly painted silos. First up is the tiny hamlet of Goorambat (population 347, some 20km beyond Benalla), and the painted silo of the Melbourne street artist Jimmy Beattie, known as Dvate. Dvate’s passion is for endangered species, so his chosen subject is a portrait of Milli, an Australian Barking Owl he met at Healesville Sanctuary. The Barking Owl is the most threatened owl in Victoria but Northeast Victoria remains a stronghold for this endangered species, so the silo seemed like a fitting place to put this image.


But little Goorambat doesn’t just boast a Dvate artwork on its silo. It also has a beautiful Adnate mural, entitled Sophia and painted during the 2017 Wall to Wall Festival, in its tiny Uniting Church. The Adnate mural has helped create an amazingly beautiful space, both physically and spiritually, in this humble chapel.


Then it is on to the even smaller town of Devenish and the silos painted by Cam Scale. Cam took as his inspiration the town’s connection to WW1, when one in six of this small community signed up to serve. Of the 50 that went overseas, seven did not return.  The town wanted something to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war, but also hoped for a memorial that might draw tourists to this somewhat down at heel little town. The community raised $20,000 to fund the painting of the silo, and are thrilled with the result.


There is yet another painted silo a further 23km up the road at the town of Tungamah, but we didn’t find that out until the next day so shall have to leave that for another time. Apparently the Tungamah mural is particularly noteworthy for the fact that the artist, Sobrane, painted the mural freehand, working from a one page sketch (more typically, works of this scale are done using either projection of the image onto the surface, or using grid markings to guide the artist’s hand).

We return to Benalla and arrive at our Airbnb as the cold evening air is beginning to take hold.  We are relieved to discover that our host has already turned on the heater, which has taken the chill from the air. We have decided to dine in as we were reluctant to leave the warmth, and we are very lucky in that decision as we discover the next day that the town’s main restaurant, Georgina’s, is closed due to a fire suffered some 5 weeks earlier. Instead, we enjoy a fireside feast of our own making, complete with a bottle of sparkling and a bottle of The Inception Cabernet from Fowles Wines.

Our beds are comfy and we awake to a crisp but bright sunny day, which is fortuitous as we have booked ourselves into a Street Art walking tour, starting at 10.30am.  After a get me started coffee at Rustik Café, we meet our tour guide, Lindsay from Visit Benalla (, at the appointed time and place. The place is beside the Benalla Ceramic Mural, and Lindsay tells us a little of its history. The mural was commenced in 1983 but was not completed until 2010. While local artist Judy Lorraine had a big hand in its creation, there are tiles made by residents and school children, as well as people such as the famous cartoonist Leunig.  A bakers oven once stood on the spot, and this too has been captured within the mural. Overall, one can’t help thinking of the whimsical work of the celebrated Catalonian artist , Antoni Gaudi. It certainly rewards time taken to explore its nooks and spiralling crannies.

Lindsay was one of the founding members of the Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival committee, so is well placed to introduce us to the key pieces around town, and to let us into the tales behind both the art works and how the Festival came to be. It is quite fascinating to hear the inside gossip; to hear more about the artists and their way of working; and to learn which murals find favour with the locals and which don’t.  We spend a very enjoyable 2 hours wandering the town and admiring the walls.

At the end we are in need of sustenance so head back to Rustik Café for lunch and a much needed sit down, before crossing over the bridge to look inside the charming Benalla Art Gallery, a small gem of a regional gallery sitting beside the banks of Lake Benalla .

The Gallery has its own café, a small shop and two gallery spaces. The first has an exhibition of works from the collection, entitled Ornament and Subject. One beautifully intricate work particularly takes our fancy (but I forgot to take note of the artist, many apologies to him or her).

The other room is showing works by Peter Waples-Crowe and Megan Evans, entitled Squatters and Savages. The works are clever and visually arresting reflections on the impact of colonisers on our Indigenous people. I found it quite moving.

We finish off our Benalla visit with a quick look around NEA, the North East Artisans store on Bridge Street East. We haven’t seen all Benalla has to offer – the artworks in the nearby Winton Wetlands will have to wait until our next visit – but it is time to climb into the car and make the 2.5 hour trip back to Melbourne. But before I go I take another look at one of my favourite civic buildings – the old Benalla Shire offices, built in 1958 and designed by architects AK Lines, MacFarlane and Marshall, which has thankfully been recognised for the modernist gem it is and beautifully restored and placed on the Victorian Heritage Register.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in this town that could take on and own the identity of street art capital of Victoria.




Cool Summer in the High Country

It was purely serendipitous that we managed to escape the run of very hot days in Melbourne during our latest trip to Dinner Plain. The timing of the visit was dictated by the public holiday rather than the weather forecast, but how grateful we were to be in 24C rather than the 37- 41C temperatures that plagued Melbourne.  And, no blackouts up there either. There is no doubt that the mountains are a lovely place to be in the height of summer.

As always, the spirits lift as soon as you leave the Hume Highway, heading off tangentially into the Alpine Valley on the road that runs from Oxley and Milawa, through Myrtleford, Porepunkah, Bright and Harrietville before the steep climb up to Mt Hotham and down to Dinner Plain.  We stop in Bright for lunch at Tomahawks, the funky corrugated iron shed in Camp Street that serves very good dude food that caters to all ages.

From there we pop in to the Billy Button Cellar door (11 Camp Street) to stock up on their very good rosé, a 2017 Nebbiolo Barbera called 2 x 2.  I am rather partial to a good rosé in summer. The cellar door is also a handy spot to pick up some yummy cheeses should you be so inclined.

A walk further up the street where it curves around to become Wills Street and we reach the very newly opened Reed & Co Distillery, which co-exists with Sixpence Coffee. The distillery is the lovechild of Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed, of Tani fame. They have abandoned the life of chefs and restaurateurs for the still, producing their first batch of Remedy Gin, a heady mixture of juniper and mountain berry, lemon myrtle, finger lime and eucalyptus amongst other things.  A small taster of gin was had, washed down by the excellent Sixpence coffee.


There is more to see, do, eat and drink in Bright but the mountain calls so off we head. Lucky we did as the heavens opened not long after we arrived at the Australian Alpine Club Dinner Plain Lodge, and we were able to watch the torrent from the comfort of the lodge. Others in our party were not so lucky, and arrived somewhat white knuckled from the drive over Mt Hotham which was doing its best to impersonate a waterfall.  But, the deluge was short lived and occurred like clockwork at 5pm each day we were there – short, sharp, noisy, heavy but gone within an hour.

The forecast of rain and thunderstorms for each day did however influence our walking plans, as no one had any desire to be caught out in heavy rain, lightening and thunder. So, we planned morning walks only, which meant covering familiar ground. But, each time we walk these tracks it is different – the colours, the re-growth from the bushfires, the wild flowers. And always the glorious views.

We lunch both days at The General, the only spot open at Mt Hotham. They’ve reworked the offerings since winter, and what a good job they have done. There are 3 burgers on the menu and only 1 comes with chips – how unAustralian but fabulous is that? The lamb kofta burger comes with a serve of green beans whilst the chicken burger comes with bbq’d corn. Both are delicious. There is also an excellent chargrilled watermelon and pomegranate salad on the menu. Way to go Genny.

The evening of Australia Day (or Invasion Day as we prefer to call it) sees us dragging  bean bags and beach chairs to the beginners ski slope at sunset for Travelling Flickerfest – a road show of international and Australian short films from the Flickerfest competition. In honour of “Invasion Day” the films we see are all Australian made, and all are highly enjoyable (although slightly marred by the blurry projection).

The next night Dinner Plain’s very own brewery, Blizzard Brewery, hosted a live gig. The band, twin brothers from Sweden and their Gippsland pianist, were called Amistat. Foot tapping fun. Thanks Blizzard – a great initiative.


All too soon our 3 nights are over and our party of 8 disbands. We’ve enjoyed a lot of laughs, some exercise, a bit of culture, an immersion in nature, some great food and a bucketload of wine. Unfortunately, the fisherman in our party failed to bring home the goods, but we did not starve! The workers sadly return to the demands of work, but we are lucky enough to be able to continue the mountain experience by moving on to  neighbouring Falls Creek.

We go the back way, down into Omeo, along the very windy Omeo Highway (not for the car sick inclined) and then into Falls Creek along the Bogong High Plains Rd. But first, a pretty good Sensory Lab coffee in Omeo at the High Country cafe (opposite the art deco Golden Age pub) before we take a detour to visit the historic Hinnomunjie Bridge. Pete tuts and shakes his head at the bad farming practices on display along the Omeo Valley – barely a tree in sight on the rolling hills and the poor cattle have no where to shelter from the blazing sun. Talk about a slash and burn mentality – the land will not thank them for it.

The Hinnomunjie Bridge, built in 1909/1910, is historic because it is the only remaining multiple-truss bridge in Victoria, constructed using hand hewn timber. You can see the broad axe marks on the sturdy timber beams. Those were the days.

The climb up to Falls Creek takes us to the Bogong High Plains, which, like Mt Hotham, were ravaged by terrible bush fires in 2003. The regrowth of the gums is slow but sure, and provides a ghostly beauty of white branches reaching to the sky.


We are staying for the next 2 nights in the QT hotel. I’m less than happy when I discover that, despite a virtually empty hotel, we have been given a room that looks out over the ….. carpark. Not happy Jan. But, a phone call to Evan the very new GM results in a move to a room with a view down the valley, and a much happier me. The room is very comfortable but could do with closer attention to maintenance – you can’t close the fridge door due to a build up of ice on the small freezer compartment so we attempt to defrost the fridge on their behalf. It is still a work in progress when we leave 2 days later.


Even though there are very few people staying on the mountain (although apparently the previous 2 nights it had been jam packed with bike riders and dragon boat racers) there are several choices for dinner. We opt for the BE Foodstore, and are very glad we did. We sit out on the deck to make the most of  the balmy evening (meanwhile Melbourne is sweltering in 41C) and enjoy our very good meals, washed down with an excellent Pizzini Sangiovese.

We go back to BE for lunch – the best egg and bacon roll ever – and an excellent coffee (beans from Melbourne’s Proud Mary), before heading off for the Wallace Hut Heritage Walk that takes us to Wallace Hut and then on to Cope Hut on a 5km circuit. Wallace Hut was constructed in 1889 by the 3 Wallace brothers. Each year the Wallaces drove their stock up to the high plains for summer feed, and the hut was built to provide shelter for the cattlemen. The hut is now a refuge for walkers and skiers.


The gums surrounding the hut are a work of art in themselves.


Further on we come to Cope Hut, which unlike Wallace Hut, was built expressly as a refuge for cross country skiers in 1929.  The view from the hut is lovely.



Our walk back to the car takes us past “Maisie’s Plots”.  In the 1940’s a woman called Maisie Fawcett observed the long term damage done to the alpine grasses and flowers by the cattle allowed to craze in the Alpine area, so she conducted an experiment to test her theories on regrowth – or lack thereof.  And guess what, she was right. So, why on earth did we need to study this again, and why do cattlemen and the Liberal Party still deny that crazing cattle do irreparable harm to the natural flora of the Alps?

Walk done we drive past the Rocky Valley Storage ‘lake’ and up to the top of Mount McKay to admire the glorious views across to Mt Feathertop and down the valley to Mount Beauty.


Next morning, our stay in the High Country is over, and right on cue the rain comes and our view from the hotel is shrouded in cloud. It has been a delightful respite from the heat of the City. We will be back.


The Queen Charlotte Track

At last the reason we are in New Zealand finally arrives as 11 of Roslyn’s nearest and dearest come together from the “West Island” to celebrate her entry into her 7th decade of a fabulous life. In typical Roz fashion she has chosen an adventure to mark this significant birthday – the intrepid Group Doyle are to walk (or tramp as the Kiwis so quaintly call it) the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km hike around the Marlborough Sounds (

The advance party attends our walk briefing given by the walk organisers, Wilderness Guides. Marty speaks so quickly that we are all slightly bamboozled by the directions, but between us seem to have grasped the most pertinent points: where the loos are on the track; the ferry taxi departure times; where we can telephone from if travelling faster or slower than anticipated; beware of sandflies; carry water. Clutching the track map and an the instruction to be at the Wilderness Guides office at 8.30am, we return to the motel where the last members of the party have assembled.


The motel is called the Harbour View for a reason, and we are entertained by watching the ferries from Wellington come and go on a regular basis. We are not so entertained by the drill that seems to work all day and night.


We are a motley crew, and almost no one knows everyone, which gives us much to talk about over the next 4 days as we interrogate each other about our whys and wherefores. We have experienced walkers and novices amongst us. And, a variety of ailments, including cracked ribs, broken toes, buggered knees, hammer toe, damaged ankle. We are the walking wounded, but chin up and alcohol medicated we shall be fine. The one thing that draws us together – apart from the love of a good laugh, good food, and good wine – is our strong affection for the birthday girl.


Our first evening together in Picton starts as we mean to go on, bonding over a couple of bottle of bubbles, before we cross over the road to dinner.


Little did we know that the restaurant owner obviously has a deep love of Christmas and had gone all out decorating the space. So much so that we felt we were dining in Santa’s Cave. Nothing like setting the atmosphere.



But the night was not just about twinkling lights and Christmas trees. The NZ earth decided to give itself another shake, just to test our mettle. However, the noise around the table was so loud that only a handful of us felt the earth move. A 4.8 this time. The serving staff shrugged their shoulders and carried on; just another day for them.

Aware of the task in front of us the next morning the night was reasonably young when we staggered into bed. Not all were bright and bushy tailed next morning as Craig was felled by either a 24 hour virus or a dose of the dodgy prawn and had been up most of the night. But, trooper that he is, he fronted up to the ferry, slept during the ride then shouldered his day pack and trudged stoically through the 15km required that day.

Meanwhile, the rest of the merry band sat up top in the bright sunshine admiring the views of where we would be walking, whilst listening to the very entertaining patter of the boat’s driver, who, apart from a wide knowledge of the geography and history of the Sounds, had a deep interest in the real estate prices of the bachs dotted along the foreshore.



Apart from house prices, we heard stories about the salmon farm’s problem with marauding seals (and a seal bobbed up just to prove his point) and were blessed by a group of friendly dolphins riding shotgun for a while. We disembarked in high spirits (Craig aside) at Ship Cove, the start of the track. Ship Cove is famous for being the spot where Captain James Cook anchored over five visits to this area.



The track starts with a steep climb up from Ship Cove, through regenerating native forest. The Dept of Conservation is undertaking an aggressive policy of trying to eradicate the much hated Australian brush tailed possum, so as well as forest we see lots of wooden traps. There no sympathy for the possum to be found amongst our group.

Once we reach the summit we are rewarded with beautiful views, but of course, after an up comes a down, so it was a steepish descent to Resolution Bay followed by a steady climb back up again to Tawa Bay Saddle, and our picnic lunch stop.



From here it was a slow descent back to the water’s edge at Endeavour Inlet and our accommodation for the night, Furneaux Lodge. The main house, housing  the all important bar and restaurant, is the original home of one of the early key conservationists of the area. The grounds are lovely, as are the views from the bar, where the group gathers for some cleansing ales and wines before dinner.



The meal was a bit of a revelation – so much so that we demanded to meet the chef, who was reluctantly dragged forward by the waitress to receive our praise. Turns out she was a young lady who used to be the sous chef at tomorrow night’s lodging, Punga Cove. This is her first head chef gig, and she is definitely kicking goals. The food  was washed down by some lovely New Zealand Sav Blancs and Reds.


Next morning dawns bright and sunny again and we are able to enjoy a reasonably leisurely start as we only have a relative amble of 12kms today, with no big ascents or descents. We are heading to Punga Cove, which we can see across Endeavour Inlet from Furneaux Lodge as our walk takes us around the coastline of the Inlet.


The heat of the day makes the day’s tramp a bit harder than anticipated, and our arrival at Punga Cove is a welcome sight, even more so when we realise that the bar is located right on the jetty. The green jersey winners – Sue and me – decide that a jug of Pimms is required to accompany our packed lunch.


Lunch done, a pat of the orphaned baby goat and into our rooms. The view from ours makes the most of Punga Cove’s location.



There had been hopes to do some kayaking, but the wind is up and the sea too choppy for any water activity. What a shame, I’ll just have to sit and enjoy the view instead, whilst trying not to worry about the Earthquake Instruction notice in the room.



There were high hopes again for dinner as we had encountered a fellow guest on the track who had raved about the venison. Most ordered it, but I chose the spaghetti vongole instead and was happy with the choice, getting my venison fix via the venison pâté. I was glad to see venison on the menu as we had seen so many deer farms on our travels but no venison on any menu – I had been wondering where the deer were ending up. And the wine list was terrific, a real added bonus.


It was an early night for most, after a visit to the glow worm grotto and a failed attempt to see the phospherescence in the water, as we had a long day and an early start (8am) the next day.

Day 3 is our big day – 23km, and we have to be at Torea Bay no later than 4.45pm to catch the water taxi that will whisk us to Lochmara Lodge, our home for the night. No pressure.

Two of our party opt to travel with the water taxi that is transporting the luggage from Punga Cove to Lochmara Lodge, so they cheerily wave us off as we set off to rejoin the Track.

It’s a constant climb up to the ridgeline, which we then traverse – with several steep ups and downs – for most of the day. The day is overcast, and drizzle starts before long, turning into light rain as we slog our way upwards. However, the rain is never heavy, and the overcast skies mean the climbing isn’t as hot as it would have been on the previous days.


We set a pretty cracking pace, no doubt urged on by the fear of missing the water taxi. We are ahead of schedule by lunchtime, which creates much discussion as to calling the water taxi to ask for an earlier pick up. Stop and smell the roses was the vote. Try a spot of meditation even.

On we go, and the sun decides to come out for the last part of the day. We see mussel farms in the distance, and start salivating at the thought of freshly harvested mussels for dinner. Several were moving slightly stiffly as we made the last descent to the Torea Bay pier and our transport. We were an hour ahead of schedule. Thank heavens the birthday girl had over ridden the vote and made a secret call to the ferry company – we breathed a sigh of relief to see the boat steam into view not long after we arrived at the jetty.



Lochmara Lodge is a Wildlife Recovery & Arts Centre as well as accommodation, but our focus is on the spa tub to ease aching muscles.



And then it is repeat the established behaviour – gather for pre-dinner drinks, followed by dinner. Tonight I do choose the venison, and it is beautifully tender (unlike the previous night apparently). The meals have certainly been one of the many pluses of this tramp.



Our last day starts with a 45 minute climb, past the llama and the weather forecast board,  back up to the ridgeline and the Track.



But after that the day is largely downhill. 18 km in all, through some lovely pockets of rainforest and native beech trees.




Lunch is at Davies Bay, where the blue water beckons to a couple of our intrepid walkers, who take the opportunity to cool off as once more we are walking under a blazing sun. Here we meet a young Canadian woman from the Yukon who is hiking the length of the South Island, on her own. We are in awe of her adventurous spirit.


We also meet a party of 3, who had also been staying at Lochmara Lodge. They are 85, 82 and 76 respectively. Seriously impressed – and cross our fingers that this will be us when we are their age.

Less than an hour after lunch we reach the end of the Track, where a little green caravan café is cleverly positioned. Very enterprising.


Despite injuries, we are all in good spirits, proud as punch that we’ve done it. The views have been magnificent. The lodgings were lovely, and the food terrific. We’ve gotten to know each other, and many laughs were enjoyed along the way. What a wonderful way to celebrate turning 60. Thank you for the opportunity young Roz.



Walking in the Asturias 

Inntravel call our walk the Picos de Europa, but I feel it is more accurate to call it The Asturias walk, as we turn our backs on that impressive mountain range,  and the Picos National Park, as we walk out of Arenas de Cabrales and into our 6 day walk. The walk will take us from the mountains to the sea, through a verdant green landscape with many ups and downs as we traverse different mountain ranges.


The name Asturias comes from the region’s Celtic origins, and helps explain the predilection for cider, and the Celtic music that is on repeat in one of the restaurants we visit. Apparently, the local Celts, or Astures, were subdued but never completely conquered by the Romans. Or, indeed the following Moors. The mountains and the rugged life involved was not for the faint hearted of any kind. And that is probably still the case.

However, it has become a very popular area with Spanish holiday makers. The combination of rugged mountains, deep green pastures and beautiful beaches, plus a plethora of stone houses and cabins dotted through the countryside, has resulted in booming local tourism and the buying up of property to restore as holiday houses, or chalets as they tend to be known. We get the impression that there is more money in this region than we have seen elsewhere – villages and hamlets may be quiet and empty but they are not neglected, with many beautiful traditional homes to be seen.


We spend our days accompanied by the constant harmony of bells – the deeper clang of the cow bells with the goat, sheep and horse bells adding a higher note. We are never far from their clanging, tinkling and jangling. Combined with the mountain backdrop, I keep expecting Heidi and Grandfather to appear round the next bend. But, to my disappointment we see virtually no else on the tracks we follow, however we do come across a lovely Maremma dog guarding a herd of goats one day. He is torn between his desire to say Hello and protecting his flock. The flock won out, and he shepherded them away from the path, so no photo I’m afraid.


Birdsong is also constant, as there are many forests. I hear my first cuckoo, much to my delight. And birds of prey are often gliding above us, enjoying the updrafts from the valleys.

The tracks we follow are often little more than animal tracks. Compass and close examination of maps is occasionally required. Thank goodness for the detailed walk notes provided by Inntravel, and the bush walking ability of The Husband (except for his spectacular map misreading on one day – more of that later). Some sections we are forced to do battle with gorse bushes and blackberries, and have the scratches to prove it.

The food is probably the only let down of the walk. The Asturians seem to believe in quantity, of very basic meals. The portions are invariably huge, but several times we just push it around our plate and leave most behind. And oh for vegetables.

Day 1: Arenas de Cabrales to Pandiello, 18 kms, total ascent 1108 m, total descent 700m.

Our first day, through birch, oak and sycamore forests, affords us many views back to the Central and Western Massif mountains that make up the Picos. We even manage to get another look at the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes, or Urriello, as the clouds part for us.



The morning starts with a consistent climb up the hills that we could see in the foreground from our room at Hotel Torrecerredo. In fact, at one point we can spy the hotel from our hilltop.


We then drop down into the little village of Carreña, where we stop for a coffee, and a slice of cake kindly provided by the owner. He has gone to a lot of trouble decorating his bar, and his pride in the establishment is evident. I had visions of the coffee and cake scenario being repeated on subsequent days, but this proves to be the only village we pass through with either a bar/restaurant, or one that is open. Much to my disappointment. Lucky it was such a nice one then.


After coffee it is back to walking up again, as we climb towards the top of yet another mountain range. In fact, over the course of the walk I come to dread downs, as I know they will be followed by more ups and I feel I have just wasted all that effort to get the top. But, the reward for the hard slogs uphill are the vistas of the mountains all around us, and later, the sea beyond.


Our destination for our first night is the tiny hamlet of Pandeillo, perched on the side of a hill and the Casa de Aldea la Portiella del Llosu (the name is almost longer than the village). Our host, José, has meticulously restored an old stone house, and has also been partly responsible for designing the walk.

After showering and changing, we tell José that we are going out to have a walk around the village. He says that he will see us back in 5 minutes, and he is not far off. There is little sign of life, although many of the houses have been lovingly restored. We suspect many of them may be weekenders or holiday homes, as having a chalet (or holiday house) in the Asturias seems very popular.

So, we return to our cosy little hotel and settle in with a bottle of red wine. José cooks an enormous meal that evening, and uncommonly serves it to us at 8pm. Thank goodness, as we are more than ready for bed after the day’s walk.


Day 2: Pandeillo to Bobia de Arriba, 18 kms, total ascent 803m, total descent 800m

Although this reads like a less strenuous day than yesterday, it was actually much harder going as the climbs were much steeper. I felt at the top that we were in the eagles’ lair itself, with views across to the Bay of Biscay, and mountains everywhere you looked. We were bombarded with colours of green and blue. Beautiful. Breathtaking – in both senses of the word.



The day started innocently enough with a walk to the next village of Canales. As we walked through the village a car came to a grinding halt. It was Jim, mine host from Hotel Torrecerredo! A quick chat, and off we go in our different directions. Ours takes us up a dirt road, past a disused mine, before we start to rise steadily.


Our notes warn us that the mid section of the walk, where we tackle the Sierra Gustaselvin, requires good visibility as the tracks are indistinct and the drops down into valleys are vertiginous in parts. Our day is clear blue in all directions, so onwards and upwards we press.

Up at the top we share the view with the Asturias ponies grazing on the pastures, and the birds of prey. We think they are buzzards, but are not sure.

But, all this up makes for a long, slow walk down to our base for the night, Bobia de Arriba and Hotel Rural El Rexacu, and we arrive grubby and weary; falling  upon a glass of wine before tackling the stairs to our room.


Bobia is a tiny hamlet, made up of two parallel rows of houses, all facing yet another mountain range. Despite its small size, the hotel is relatively substantial – with 15 rooms, a bar and restaurant. That night, it is obvious that the bar is something of a meeting spot for visitors and locals alike. We join in, chatting to a lovely lady who has excellent English thank heavens, as our Spanish continues to be virtually non existent.

Our room has a little sitting area, with views across the village to the distant mountain range. Lovely.


Day 3: Covadonga Lakes to Bobia de Arriba.

This was the day Himself got it wrong. We were supposed to walk about 14kms, with an ascent of 410m and descent of 1080m. But, we managed to walk 20kms, with an ascent of 910 metres!!!

It all started innocently enough with a 40 minute taxi ride to the Covadonga Lakes. The drive up is windy and steep, and today there was a bike/run/walking race on up the mountainside. I was very very grateful to be doing the climb in the back of a taxi, and not on my feet. Crazy people. The ascent from Covadonga to Los Lagos is a key stage in the Vuelta a España. At 12.6 kms, it has an average gradient of 7.3%. In one section this increases to 15% over 800 metres. This hill climb has broken hearts, little did I know that I was going to join them!


As the car climbed we caught glimpses of the amazing views we would see once at the top. And then the gorgeous Our Lady of Covadonga Monastery came into view. More wows. The basilica was built to house a statue of Mary that is believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in an 8th century battle. The current Monastery dates back to the 16th century, and is a place of pilgrimage.


When we finally reach the lakes themselves I am already punch drunk from the beauty we have seen, but there is more to come. Los Lagos de Covadonga consists of two glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina, and are actually in the Picos de Europa National Park. Lake Enol is 1,070 metres above sea level and Ercina tops it at 1,108 metres above sea level. Behind the lakes are snow covered mountains. In the distance is the Bay of Biscay. Stunning.


We are dropped off beside Enol, and then walk over the lip to Ercina, where we stop into the restaurant for a coffee. It is over coffee that we hatch the plan to abandon the walk notes and take a shortcut up beside Ercina, with the intention of joining back into the intended walk just behind the hill in front of us.


Our problem is that there are two paths, initially travelling in similar trajectories. We miss seeing the second path and head off, at a brisk pace, away from where we thought we were. And despite me saying, on several occasions, We are doing a lot more climbing than I expected, we keep making like mountain goats ever upwards. As we almost reach the top, Himself calls a halt and we finally agree that we have gone wrong somewhere. Problem is, we are not exactly sure where we are, but we do know we have to go down. So down we go, then regroup in a valley basin.

We finally place our trust in the Maps.Me app and let it guide us down the mountain over non existent tracks. After half an hour we finally get back to the spot we should have been 3 hours earlier. From there it is a slow and very tired trudge down, down, down. I refuse to talk to himself until finally back at the Hotel and have been revived with a very big gin tonic.


It’s all I can do not to fall asleep in the soup that night. But, it has given us a tale to tell for years to come.

Day 4: Bobia de Arriba to El Allende, 13.5 km, total ascent 580m, total descent 710m.

Thank goodness today was a shorter, easier day as the legs were  feeling a little tired.  We were driven to the hamlet of Cuerres to start walking, which made the section more than manageable.

At one stage we were walking through a eucalypt forest, with a thick carpet of leaves and bark. The smell of gum trees transported us back home, albeit home with the clang of cow bells.

We stopped for our picnic lunch in the small town of Riocalente. Here we sit amongst the cluster of hórreos and a charming sculpture of a market woman, with an attendant, and very hopeful, puppy.

Hórreos are everywhere in the region, and are essentially a wooden food storage shed on a raised platform, supported by 4 pillars, each with a rodent barrier to keep the precious food supplies safe. We have seen them in all states of repair, from derelict to beautifully restored. They are quite beautiful.


Our home for the night is Casa Rural Montaña Mágica, or Magic Mountain. The source of the name is twofold. One is the view of the Picos we get from our bedroom window. This will be our last view of this magnificent mountain range, so we sit on our lounge chairs and drink in the view. The other influence on the name is the novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (not one I’m familiar with).


The setting is just lovely, but the evening meal is a low point in this culinary journey through the Asturias. I watched as other tables pushed their food around the plate also – a plate of admittedly soft but completely tasteless octopus (boiled perhaps?) with slabs of boiled potato, and an Asturian version of a parma, with soggy chips.

Day 5: El Allende to La Pereda, 19 kms, total ascent 690m, total descent 870m

This was a day of choices as 3 different routes were on offer: a lift to the coast then walk along the coast to Llanes; an easy walk along the valley; or the high route option, up into the hills to reach a pass overlooking the sea. The last route was only recommended in good visibility as once more it was on indistinct paths. As it was to be our last day in the mountains, and the weather was fine, we opted for the high route.

We caught a lift with the luggage down to the village of Vibano, which saved us a 2km descent. We hop out and then stand looking at the map and walk notes, trying to work out where exactly we are. A lady hanging out her washing on her balcony spies us and comes down, in her housecoat and slippers, to ask whether we need help with directions – in Spanish. Somehow, between us, we manage to communicate, with many hand gestures. The one thing I clearly understand, when she works out where we are headed, is Mal camino (bad path). This does not inspire confidence, but it turns out that, although indistinct in parts and we do have to battle gorse and blackberries in a few spots, the path isn’t too mal and we find our way through.

It is a slow but steady climb for several hours, up the hills towards a lovely hidden valley. We pass only one other person along the way – an elderly farmer coming down the hill, using a crutch to help him. His grizzled look tells us he is used to this trek, so we had better man up and stop puffing.


We use the cabañas, in various states of repair, to help guide us. A cabaña is a stone hut, used as housing by the shepherds and mountain farmers. Some we have seen through this journey have been lovingly restored, probably to be used as weekenders. Others have seen better days. But they make good way markers in the walk notes.


After about 2 and a half hours of steady ascent, on tracks made by horses and cows, we finally emerged at the very end of the valley and stood at the edge of the cliff face, looking down to the coast spread out before us. Unfortunately, a sea mist blurred the view but it was still a great feeling of achievement.


The zig zag path down the face of the cliff wasn’t quite so much fun, nor was the hour walk through the slightly spooky forest at the base, riddled as it was by paths made by pesky dirt bikes.

But, we finally made it through the forest and back into civilisation. Tiredness was starting to set in, but spirits revived as the path took us through some charming villages complete with the grand homes of the Indianos. In the late 1800s, early 1900s much of the population emigrated to South America to make their fortune. Having made their money, many then returned to the Asturias and built grand mansions. These returnees were known as the Indianos, and they have left behind a legacy of magnificent houses that are slowly being restored to their former grandeur by a new generation of wealthy migrants to the region.

Our home for the next two nights, Posada del Babel, sits in the charming village of La Pereda, just outside the seaside town of Llanes. It comes as something of a surprise as whilst the main house is a simplified recreation of more traditional architecture, the owner’s home that sits in front, and the separate guest accommodation behind, are a vision of modernity – and well before their time as they were built in 1997.


The Posada is a delight – simply but beautifully decorated , dotted with some fabulous works of art. There is currently a photographic exhibition on the walls, by a famous Spanish photographer and his daughter. Our hosts are Blanca and Lucas, but sadly Lucas is currently in hospital awaiting surgery. Whilst it is a worrying time for Blanca, she does not let this interfere with being a charming hostess and we are graciously welcomed, muddy boots and all.

Lucas is the chef so evening meals are not currently available. No matter, as Blanca has booked us into their favourite restaurant in Llanes, La Cuiera, for dinner both nights – and acts as our chauffeur there and back. It is in fact the best food we have had since leaving San Sebastián, although I am sorry not to have been able to sample Lucas’s cooking.

“We” has become 4, as another couple had been on the same walk from Bobia. An American couple, originally from Seattle but now retired in Hawaii. Once we established they were card carrying Democrats, we got on fine.

Day 6: La Pereda to Llanes and return, 10km, flat.

Our last day was a day of rest – sleep in, late breakfast and stroll into Llanes for a look and lunch, stroll back. Very pleasant.

The walk in is both easy, and pleasant. Llanes is a fishing town that is making the most of being a tourist attraction for locals and foreigners alike. It is also on the Camino Norde route, so there is the constant tramping through of Camino pilgrims.

We have a good look around the medieval centre, and go down to the port to admire both the fishing boats returning with their catch, and the Cubos de la Memoria – the painted concrete cubes that are part of the breakwater. They were painted by artist Agustin Ibarrola, a now elderly Basque painter and sculptor. We had come across him on our visit to Spain in 2015, as he is the artist that created the Painted Forest of Oma.

Lunch is taken by the river – sharing an anchovy & endive salad and a delicious plate of lightly fried prawns, with crispy, crunchy shells. Washed down with a glass, or two, of vino. An excellent way to finish what has been an interesting, occasionally challenging, walk through yet another region of this diverse and fascinating country.


And wonder of wonders, apart from the one day of rain when we walked the Cares Gorge, we have managed to do this walk with no rain. That is a miracle for us, particularly given this region is a deep, deep green for a reason. So, I send a big Thank You to the walking Gods. Perhaps the curse has been lifted!

The Picos de Europa

Every time we told people in Australia that we were going to visit the Picos de Europa the response was invariably the same: “Where?”. Compared to say The Dolomites, or The Pyrenees, The Picos are relatively unknown – at least Downunder – but they deserve to be up there with the other mountain ranges as they are stunning, and we have only scratched the surface of what they have to offer.

They are called the Picos de Europa, or Peaks of Europe in English, as they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas. They sit 20km inland from the northern coast of Spain, with the highest peak reaching 2,650 meters. From San Sebastián to Arenas de Cabrales, the main township in the Central Massif, is 288kms. So it took us most of the day to reach Arenas by public transport.

We set off to the San Sebastián bus terminal with plenty of time up our sleeve for coffee before boarding our 9.10am bus to Llanes. We had a 15 minute window of opportunity at Llanes before catching the bus to Arenas. But, as you know, the best laid plans often go astray. We enjoyed our coffee and turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the bus. Only problem, no bus. Thirty minutes later a replacement bus screeches into the allotted bay, and a bus load of very agitated passengers pile on board. We know our window of opportunity has been blown out of the water. What can you do? Nada.

The trip is a bit of a milk run, as we stop at what seems like every town between San Sebastián and Llanes. We do not make up time, so are not surprised to see a completely empty bus station when we pull into Llanes. But we were surprised to find the station locked up tight, so no chance for claiming a refund on the ticket. Never mind. We trundle off in search of a taxi, only to find none at the rank. Never mind again. Sheenagh whips out her phone and her Spanish and manages to organize a taxi to take us on the 30 minute journey to Arenas. 10 minutes later we are in the cab and on our way.

We are staying at Hotel Torrecerredo. The hotel website had promised rooms with a view and we are not disappointed. What a view it is.

Arenas de Cabrales is a charming, small, village. Quiet now but it is obviously jam packed in the season. Every second building is either a cafe or a local produce store. After we have finished oh and ahhing at our view we have a wander round the village to get the lie of the land.

The area is famous not only for its mountain range but also for its blue cheese, Queso de Cabrales. Once upon a time, the cheese was made by the shepherds in their small mountain huts and left to mature in the many limestone caves that are dotted through the mountains. The cheese was made from goat and sheep’s milk with a dash of cows milk. Upon maturation, the cheeses would be wrapped in leaves and brought down from the mountains for sale.

But, since the local cheese became recognized as unique to this area and acquired an EU DO (Designation of Origin) status, all the romance has gone from its production. No longer is it made in the small stone huts of the goat herders. No longer is it wrapped in leaves. And no longer is it made predominately from goats milk – rather, it is mainly made from cows milk due to the greater milk production of cows compared to goats or sheep. But, it is still matured for 3-5 months in the caves.

We learn all this from our tour of one of the local cheese makers, where we also get to taste, and smell, the cheese. Which they serve with a dash of the local cider. Luckily, the very kind lady serving us the samples didn’t stay to watch our faces, as the cider was tipped out into the Rio Cares flowing beside the cheesery, and I held my nose whilst tasting the cheese. Blue cheese is one of life’s great dividers and I happen to fall on the hell no side. Sheenagh and Pete however assured me that it was good blue cheese. I’ll take their word for it. All three of us however agreed on the cider – disgusting.

Reconnoiter over, we head back to the terrace of Hotel Torrecerredo to soak up the view and plan tomorrow’s walk, with the help of our very genial English mine host, who knows the region intimately.

We go to bed not only well fed by Jim, mine host, but also with a clear plan of attack for the next day, which dawns with clear blue skies. Our plan is to set out from nearby Poncebos and hike up to Bulnes, then further up again to the Pandebano Pass and over to Sotres. Jim has very kindly offered to drive us to the start of the walk and collect us from the end.

We had originally planned to take the funicular up to Bulnes, but Jim had persuaded us to walk, claiming it was a beautiful hike, and how right he was. A bit of a slog, but oh so worth it.

We were more than ready for a coffee at Bulnes. From some way away we could spy a stone building on high, with what seemed like a terrace and umbrellas. The thought of sitting on the terrace drinking coffee spurred us on. As we got closer we saw that we had a choice to make: a last, steep, climb to the cafe or skip coffee and keep pushing on to Pandebano Pass. Up to coffee was the decision, so we slogged on up. We were greeted at the top by the charming but rather surprised owner of Mirador la Llende – surprised because he wasn’t expecting to see 3 very puffed walkers poke their heads over the embankment of the hill. Turns out that if we had continued straight ahead we would have reached the village of Bulnes and then been able to walk up the paved, albeit steep, road to the cafe, rather than make like goats and scramble up the face of the hill itself! Never mind, as it was well worth the scramble – a fabulous view, a reasonable coffee and we even managed to rustle up a take away tapas picnic lunch from the very obliging host (again, Sheenagh’s Spanish lessons came in very handy).

Legs rested, we hit the trail again for the push up to Pandebano Pass. The hike afforded wonderful views of the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes (otherwise known as Picu Urriellu), a rock climbers dream.

We were more than ready for our picnic lunch when we finally reach the Pass, although the temptation to at first spin around in circles singing the hills are alive or high on the hills lived a lonely goatherd was almost overwhelming. A temptation I, thankfully for the others, resisted.

From here it was a relatively easy one hour walk downhill towards the township of Sotres, via some hungry donkeys who were reluctant to accept No we don’t have any food left, and the remnants of a Roman road (they sure got around, those Romans). As arranged, our lift back to the hotel was waiting as we arrived. I do love it when a plan comes together.

A terrific day’s walk – 14km and an elevation gain of 1,174 metres. Did we sleep well that night.

Next morning the heavens were singing a different song – low cloud and drizzle, with heavier rain forecast for later in the afternoon, continuing into the next day. We bit the bullet and decided to walk the famous Cares Gorge regardless, worried that Thursday’s weather would be worse, and not prepared to leave the Picos without doing this walk. Again, Jim obliged by transporting us back to Poncebos for the start of the walk.

The track runs along the Cares Gorge from Poncebos to Cain, a distance of some 11kms (so, 22kms return). The track is actually the path built to allow for maintenance workers to get to the hydro electric water canal, which was built between 1916 – 1925. The canal, and the path, is an amazing engineering feat, clinging to the side of the rock walls and often burrowing through the rock itself. The Gorge walk is the most popular in the Picos, and even today – a wet weekday at the very beginning of the season – there is a constant parade of fellow walkers (which makes a quick “bush wee” very difficult, and stressful, to achieve!). Even in the wet conditions, the drama of the setting is easy to admire.

Luckily it is only a light drizzle on the way out, but a kilometer out of Cain the rain has become consistent, so we decide to turn back. It is then heads down and just walk, as we get wetter and wetter. No time now for admiring anything. Good thing we had taken all our photos on the way out. Even better that there is a welcoming bar awaiting back at Poncebos, where the staff don’t mind if we leave big pools of water all over their floor.

Imagine how cross we are next morning when we wake to clearer skies and even periods of sunshine. Oh well. The rain does eventually arrive around 3 o’clock, so we would have ended up wet if we had waited to do the walk today. Instead, we enjoyed a late start to the day and another wander around Arenas.

Tomorrow Pete and I start our 7 day hike from here back to Llanes, through what is known as the Asturias, while Sheenagh returns by bus to San Sebastián (fingers crossed for connecting buses). We have put the Picos on our Must Return list, as there is still so much to see. Wish us luck for the next part of our adventure, as this area is verdant green for a reason, and as I finish writing this the rain has closed in and I can no longer see the mountains. Must be gin tonic time then.

Beautiful San Sebastián 

What a beautiful town this is. The curves of its bays. The laid back atmosphere. The beaches. The food, oh the food. This is my kinda place. It’s great to be back here, and even better that we are staying with friends who have decided to decamp here for a good chunk of this year. Their apartment is in the Gros district – a block from the beach (in fact you can see the water from their apartment) and easy walking distance to the Old Town and the train station, but removed enough from the tourist madness of the Old Town. It’s a proper, local community.

We have devoted our time here to mooching, eating and drinking. So, pretty much the same as anywhere really! We have been blessed by gorgeous weather. Lucky, as this area is verdant for a reason – it does rain a lot. But, so far so good. Mind you, we start hiking on Tuesday, so I’m sure things will change given our track record.

Our first morning was spent buying supplies at the mercado. As usual buying more than we needed but not being able to resist. Pete is on dinner duty for two nights so that we can boost our vegetable intake. After shopping it was time to take to the hill and climb up to our luncheon spot, Mirador del Ulia. The hike up the hill was worth it – spectacular food and an amazing view.

Of course this was a complete indulgence, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Each little course that came out was greeted with an Oh, Ah. We listened closely to the explanation of each dish, then resorted to the menu to try and work out exactly what we were eating, but that often wasn’t much help either. We just had to give ourselves over to the taste. Each morsel was a work of art, for both the eye and the mouth. Each bite was savoured and discussed. We easily wile away the afternoon, making the most of the experience, and that glorious view. 

Going back down the hill was much easier than the going up, helped of course by the bottles of wine consumed. Needless to say, no dinner was required that night!

Needing to feel more virtuous the next day, we set off for a 7km hike along the coastline to the next village, Pasai Donibane,  which is part of the first leg of the Camino del Norte (if starting from Irun). What a stunning walk, when blessed by sunshine as we were. It has its ups and downs, and I quickly realised I have become hill unfit since my last serious walk. The Picos de Europa walks next week are going to be a bit of a challenge.

There is a steep ascent, followed by a steep descent into Pasaia but the view from the top looking down into the entry to the harbour is breathtaking.

Pasaia is split into two by the inlet. On one side is the new town, on the other the Old Town, or Pasaia Donibane, where Victor Hugo once spent some time. The path takes you down into the harbour on the new side. From there you hop on a boat to ferry you across to the Old Town (.70 euro per person).

We joined the throng and chose a table at one of the several restaurants dotted around the square. A glass of wine each, and 3 plates to share – prawns, calamari and a mixed salad. That did the job. Back on the ferry to new town, and a short walk to the bus for the journey back to San Sebastián. 

The evening ended in much hilarity as we watched the Eurovision final in real time, live. Of course we cheered on the Australian entrant, but the Belarus duo rather stole my heart with their bouncy little tune, and bride and groom costumes. Portugal turned out to be the clear winner. An interesting choice, but it is a beautiful song. And of course, a wonderful spot for the Eurovision contest in 2018. 

We started Sunday with an excellent coffee at Sakona Coffee Roasters, a cafe that would not be out of place in Melbourne. They obviously take their coffee seriously, but serve it with a big hearted smile. And they are not just coffee roasters – the breakfast plates that went past us had us thinking we must come back for breakfast as well as coffee.

We join the crowds of tourists and locals promenading around the waterfront, admiring the views across the bay.

It is then pintxos time. We pick a bar that is crowded, nab a small table outside, then battle the customers gathered around the bar inside, groaning with a mouth watering pintxos display. We restrain ourselves and select only a few, as we know the thing to do is a pintxos hop – have a drink and one or two pintxos at a number of different bars. In fact, acting like a local comes way too easily. I swear if I lived in Spain I would become an alcoholic – it always seems to be the right time for a drink!

We move on to another bar and repeat the process. Muy buen. Muy muy buen. Our final stop is La Vina, which is rightly famous for its incredible cheesecake, which is just as delicious as I remember from our last visit. I am a happy woman.

Our stay in San Sebastián has been short, but very very sweet. I look forward to returning after a week of hiking in the mountains. There are still so many bars to sample! 

Williamstown to Altona on Foot

I was going to call this Secret Melbourne but of course it isn’t a secret to anyone who lives over the Westgate Bridge, only to those of us on the eastern side of Melbourne who rarely go out of our comfort zone. I am very ashamed to say that in all my years of living in this fine city, I have never been to Altona, much less wandered along its coastline. The same is not true for my husband, who regularly saddles up his bike and perambulates round the numerous bike paths that criss cross this city. An overcast Good Friday was the day to rectify my omission, as we walked along the Bay Trail from Williamstown beach to Altona and back – a flat as a tack but fascinating 18.5km all up.

At the start of the Trail is the Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, home to a wide variety of birds and a small harbour for little boats – a scene painted by John Perceval in 1956.

The Trail meanders alongside the Jawbone Conservation Reserve, with birds, reeds and scrubland on the left and houses with uninterrupted views across the bay to the right.

In J.T. Gray Reserve we find a board telling us that this was the site of Melbourne’s first infectious diseases hospital, built in 1884 after an outbreak of smallpox hit the town. For some unexplained reason it was called the Cut Paw Paw Sanitorium. There is no sign now of the Sanitorium, or the adjacent small cemetery (or the cut paw paws for that matter). What a sad place it must have been.

Around the corner along Gray Reserve Road we find a cluster of small shacks at the entrance of  Kororoit Creek, together with the Brunswick City Anglers Club and the Kororoit Creek Boat and Anglers Club.  Despite the Clubhouses and the  mailboxes outside each of the shacks, all of which are connected to electricity, there are almost no signs of life and a general air of neglect is about.

The Trail continues, with Kororoit Creek on the left and Mobil Oil Refinery tanks on the right. The birdlife takes no notice of us, or the factories and warehouses along the Trail. We spot swans, pelicans, ducks, spoonbill herons and many more, happily playing and feeding in the waterway.

Amongst the factories I spy an interesting looking sign and veer off the path to take a closer look. We discover Makers Zoo, and meet the lovely Jeremy, a Kiwi who does shop and café fitouts as well as crafting beautiful custom made furniture. He is busy working on a piece today but comes out for a chat. We joke that he could be putting his coffee machine to good use, serving the many people who use the Trail. The thought has crossed his mind.

We cross over the creek:

and enter the Altona Coastal Park. 

Did you know that there used to be a racecourse here? The Williamstown Racecourse. Which explains why the road is called Racecourse Road! Built in the 1870s, it was hugely popular. Even Phar Lap raced there. But, not surprisingly, the track was prone to flooding and the fences had to have gates in them to release the water. After WWII the grandstand burnt down and that was the end of the Williamstown Racecourse.

Now all that remains is a graffitied concrete block, and a rather attractive sculpture:

Walking round the edge of the Coastal Park we come to dog heaven – the wide, dog friendly, sands of the PA Burns Reserve:

before stumbling into a human heaven – the Altona-Seaholme Boatowners Association’s clubhouse, cleverly disguised as a red brick toilet block in the car park near the Altona boat ramp. We get chatting to a member of 50 years, who is making the most of a brief spell of sunshine – imbibing on his longneck whilst admiring the million dollar views back over to the city. He graciously allows us to take a peek inside the clubhouse. A much loved Sanctuary to the local boat owners.

Altona is now in sight. We amble up the main street and find the Finnish Hall, a beautiful piece of Art Deco hidden away in Altona (apparently it was once the Red Robin Hosiery factory). Turns out that it is a Finnish Festival weekend, and the hall is open and full of happy Finns, eating Finnish food. A young lady kindly invites us in, explaining that this is an annual event for Finns living in Australia and people have come from all over for the festivities. This year it was Altona’s turn to play mine host to our Australian Finns.

It is time now to turn back and retrace our steps. Going back is never as much fun as you’ve seen the sights, and the feet are definitely beginning to tire. But, make it back we do, and reward ourselves with a drink and a toasted panini at The Kiosk next door to the Williamstown Life Saving Club.

It has been a fascinating day. I’ve seen places I’ve never ventured into before, and met some characters along the way. A very good Friday indeed.

Summer in the High Country

I am definitely not a snow bunny. I have never really understood the attraction of risking life and limb hurtling down hill whilst simultaneously throwing wads of cash out of your pocket. And then there is my husband’s predilection, cross country skiing. Why on earth would one want to strap planks of wood to one’s feet and then attempt to walk uphill??? Yes, snow covered hills and trees make for a beautiful landscape, but I am usually sweating (and swearing) so much that there is little time to admire the view.

But, the mountains in summer is a completely different matter, especially when the drive to get there is through the beautiful, and spoiled for choice on where to eat, King Valley. So, it was with a happy heart that I set off for Dinner Plain last week. This happiness was slightly deflated by my realisation an hour out of Melbourne that I had managed to forget to pack any underwear, but a quick trip to the Country Target in Myrtleford solved that hiccup. But, creating more misery was the phone call from the heating engineer we were due to meet at the Lodge the next day – he was at the Lodge TODAY. Goodbye long drawn out lunch at one of the many appealing eateries and hello banana and Golden Gaytime scoffed in the car. Not an auspicious start to our 3 night jaunt.

But, the sun was shining over the hamlet of Dinner Plain, so the spirits couldn’t stay down for long. Dinner Plain always reminds me of a giant’s doll house collection, with its neat cluster of matching grey washed wooden two story buildings, nestled amongst the snow gums.

And even better, we had the whole AAC (Australian Alpine Club) Lodge to ourselves, what luxury. So, we light the barbie, pull a cork (or two) and settle in on the comfy couches – after a stroll around the village to check for any changes since our last visit.

The weather gods were certainly smiling as next day was just glorious – clear blue skies and no wind. Perfect for a hike up The Twins, a camel humped hill on the Alpine Walking Track. But first, a coffee at the cute Mountain Kitchen café, one of the only consistently open places in this semi ghost village (open Wednesday – Sunday in summer):

Caffeinated we are ready to tackle the vertical climb, 600 metres in a little over a kilometre – that got the heart pumping. The start is deceptive, a relative amble along the bushtrack, admiring the wildflowers.

But we are soon off piste and negotiating through what looks to me like unchartered territory, but the experienced bush walker amongst us (aka The Husband) recognises an alpine walking “track” when he sees one. Meanwhile, I am trying not to think about alpine snake life as I clamber over logs.

The fierce bush fires of 2003 and then again in 2013 have dramatically changed the landscape. Regrowth of the trees is happening, but you often feel that you are in the midst of a Fred Williams painting:

On the plus side, the views that are gained as you climb through the “trees” are wonderful:

And become spectacular once you climb above the tree line and reach the top:

As always, the going down is easier, and quicker. Thank goodness. But, it was certainly worth the slog up, and what a gorgeous day for it.

Back to the Lodge and some R& R before the evening’s entertainment – the movies had come to town in the form of the travelling version of Flickerfest, an internationally recognised short film festival ( Dinner Plain was lucky enough to be chosen as the first night of this travelling film show, and being Australia Day the screenings were all Australian made. 

An inflatable screen had been erected on the beginner ski slope behind the Village, and kick off was 8.30pm as the sun slowly set.

Patrons came armed with deck chairs, bean bags, picnic blankets and  warm gear to ward off the evening damp and chill. The assembled throng spread themselves out across the slope, and settled in with a free chocolate mousse from the Ramada lodge, and a wine or Blizzard beer. It was a great night. Hopefully one that will be repeated.

Next day a gentler walk was undertaken – a short ramble along Tall Timber track. Which gave us another chance to admire the glorious views:

and to check out the hut at JB Plain:

with its scenically situated outdoor loo:

Before finishing with a cleansing ale at Dinner Plain’s very own brewery- Blizzard Brewery,  which is the highest brewery in Australia, and makes a pretty good beer with the pristine alpine water at its disposal.

See why I love the mountains in Summer?! Definitely worth a visit.

Walking to Restore Sight

The name Fred Hollows stands tall in Australia, even though the man himself has been gone since 1993 (and, he is another claimed Australian – Fred was in fact born in New Zealand). It has been estimated that over 1 million people worldwide can see thanks to the work started by Fred, and carried on by the Fred Hollows Foundation.  So registering to walk 30km for the Fred Hollows Foundation Coastrek fundraiser was a no brainer really – and it turns out that is the same sentiment for lots of other people as the 2nd Melbourne Coastrek “sold out” in a couple of hours.

But, it is one thing to talk the talk, but on Friday 18th November we had to walk the walk. 

I know I do a bit of walking on our holidays, and I also know that many other fundraising events cover a lot more distance than 30km (you can in fact opt to do double the distance in Coastrek, but mad I am not). I am in complete awe of the gladiators who walk 100km in the Oxfam Trailwalk. But, 30km is no stroll in the park, and I threatened to hit the next person who said: oh, 30kms – you’ll be fine. My daughter came up with a brilliant idea – what I should say is that I am doing a short walk for the Fred Hollows Foundation, and then when people questioned how far and I said 30km, the response would be more impressed, along the lines of: 30kms, that’s not a short walk. Clever girl my daughter.

From 12 weeks before the actual walk an email from Wild Women on Top (!) would arrive in my Inbox every Monday morning, outlining the recommended training programme for that week. A weeks worth of training sounded more than I normally achieve in several months – interval training, trek training, a longer distance walk ……….. I did my best – doing long walks every 10 days or so; trudging up and down the 115 steps at Sandringham beach; continuing to do my twice weekly swim.

But panic about my ability to do it and not be a cripple the next day set in a few weeks ago and together with 2 of my team members we did a practice run along the route. It was a glorious sunny day – somewhat of a rarity in Melbourne at the time – which showed the coastal track off in all its glory. 

The route for the 30kms starts at Koonya beach at Blairgowrie and zig zags its way down to the end of Point Nepean before turning back to finish at the Quarantine Station in the Point Nepean National Park. I’m sure the rich of Portsea were thrilled to have 2000 walkers wandering past their properties on the cliff face, but my, they do enjoy beautiful views across the Bay.

We managed to walk 28km on our trial walk, struggling a little bit towards the end, but highly relieved to know we could in fact do the distance. And even more importantly, we discovered a good coffee spot in Sorrento for our necessary caffeine hit.

So, last week the actual day arrived. All the preparation had to be put into practice. We four intrepid walkers of Team Elwood Walkers congregated in Blairgowrie the night before, and a lovely balmy night it was. We sat on the deck and chewed the fat, reminding ourselves not to over imbibe as that would not make for pleasant walking the next day.

As luck would have it, we were staying two houses away from the starting point, so rather than having to drive to Point Nepean at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to the start, we four simply had to roll out of bed, don our gear and walk out the door. The downside was that we were awakened early by the chatter and cheers of excited walkers and the loudspeaker welcoming them to the event!

Our start time was 7.15, so just before the appointed hour we joined the throngs of women (about 95% of the walkers are women – each team of 4 must have at least 2 women in it, but the majority are all women) chattering excitedly at the starting point. One woman even had a young baby strapped to her chest – go figure.

We were welcomed, safety warnings were given and then we were off. The weather was perfect for a long walk – overcast, mild and still – and remained so for the whole day. How lucky were we, as the day before had been a scorcher, and the following day was bright and sunny. Walking under a blazing sun for hours on end would not have been fun. Means the scenery is not as spectacular but certainly makes for more comfortable walking.

The first few kilometres had walkers stumbling over each other as we all traipsed along the narrow track but gradually the masses strung themselves out along the path as we found our natural rhythms. 

The route is a mixture of track and footpath walking, with only a small section of beach tramping, although once past London Bridge it was largely a dirty sand track. There are undulations, and some stairs, rather than any breath sapping hills.

We arrived at the Sorrento cafe at the 5km mark in good spirits, but more than ready for our morning cup of coffee:

Suitably caffeinated we were ready to tackle the next section through Sorrento into Portsea and the midway check in point at the Percy Cerutti Oval on Back Beach Road. At 13.5km we were feeling pretty sprightly and pleased with ourselves, so it’s just a loo stop and off we go.

Chatting, both amongst ourselves and with other walkers we pass or who pass us, helps fill in the time. It’s highly entertaining to eavesdrop on the conversations being had on the path, and to contribute your two pence worth. We heard about relationship troubles, child troubles, family fights over Christmas, holidays, work issues. You name it, it is discussed in detail over 30kms of walking!

As we turn right at London Bridge we head into the old Department of Defence land where signs warning you of unexploded bombs are a strong incentive to stay on the designated track.

We are now walking through scrubland, on a dry, dusty dirt/sand track – meandering through and into the Point Nepean National Park. We emerge at around the 20km point at an old rifle range, where we, and many others, briefly stop to have a bite to eat – fueling up for the final 10kms. The breeze has picked up a bit, and there is no shelter from it, so no one lingers here for long.

We walk past the Monash Light Tower and then take a right hand turn into so called Happy Valley. Perhaps not so happy for us, and probably even less so for the 60km walkers, but definitely not Unhappy Valley. Up a small hill and we emerge above the scrub line and can see the Bay once more. Push on, and there is a lovely Volunteer with the news that we only have 7km more to go – out to the very tip of Point Nepean and back to the Quarantine Station, our final destination. 

Before we know it we are at the pointy part of Point Nepean and can see over to Point Lonsdale and Queenscliff. And, we are still smiling.

There is now a real spring in our step as we can scent the finish line. 5km to go, then 4, then 3. That’s just a normal dog walk distance. Margo and I are even snapping at the heels of our speedsters, Jennie and Roz. 

 Before we know it we see those words Finish Line ahead.

Hurrah, hurrah. We did it. 30 km, 7 hours (including coffee stop, loo stops, lunch stop). It’s been easier than we expected, certainly easier than the trial walk of 28km we did a few weeks earlier. We’ve been helped by the weather – thank you, thank you to the Walking Gods, whoever they may be. And of course, by the training we put in. We are glad we did it, and are very proud of ourselves.  More importantly, we are thrilled to have raised over $5000 for this wonderful cause – and send a big THANK YOU to all our wonderful sponsors.

Now it’s back home for a cup of tea, a shower and a glass of bubbles, in that order – both to celebrate our achievement, and Roslyn’s birthday. Here’s to us. And here’s to the other 1,996 intrepid trekkers. Well done all of us. 

P.S. And, we awoke next day sound in body and spirit, with no aches and pains. More cause for celebration. Here’s to Team Elwood Walkers. Well done ladies.

On the Dali Trail

The top right hand part of Spain, close to the border with France (the Alt Emporadà), is famous for several things, chief among them being it was the stamping ground for Salvador Dali. I have never been much of a Dali fan, but following in his footsteps seemed as good a theme for planning a visit as any other. So, off to Figueres and Cadaques we went (we will complete the Dali triangle later in the week with a visit to Pubol). 

Figueres is a 45 minute train ride from Girona, so the 9 o’clock train got us there in plenty of time to deposit our luggage at the hotel (Hotel Duran), have a coffee in the square and still be in plenty of time for our 11.00 am entry into the Dali Theatre-Museum (if you are planning to visit you should book before hand – visits are staggered, and you are expected to turn up at your appointed time or risk forfeiting your entry).

The Museum is a highly distinctive building. The tower part of the building is all that remains of a 16th century fort, which Dali christened Torre Galatea in honour of his wife, Gala. He was responsible for both the exterior and interior decor. The eggs on top of the building are a symbol of future life whilst the facsimiles of small bread rolls adorning the walls symbolise nutrition. The Museum contains the most extensive range of Dali’s works held anywhere in the world. After seeing his work it seems a pity that for many (including moi) his name is synonymous with melting clocks and drooping drawers, as he is so much more than this.

The central courtyard confronts the visitor upon entering, and it alone is worth the price of entry:

But, it was his jewellery designs that particularly captivated me – they were just beautiful:

We spent a couple of hours in the Museum, shuffling along with the rest of the crowds – turns out this was a holiday weekend as Sunday was Whitsunday and Monday was therefore Whit Monday (the second Easter as our hostess at the Cadaques hotel explained to us). As a result, both the Dali Museum and Cadaques the next day were teaming with tourists, mainly French speaking.

We escaped the tourist crowds, many of whom obviously just come to the Museum and then out again, and ended up in the main square which was also teaming with people, but this time with locals. A number of bands were playing and young and old Figuerians were there (many with their fold up chairs) dancing away to the music – a dance that looked like circular line dancing.

Walking around town we also admired a couple of art nouveau buildings:

before heading up the hill to visit the Sant Ferran castle that sprawls atop a hill not far from the Dali Museum. The castle dates back to the mid 1700s, and was built to defend this part of Spain from France. It is absolutely massive, covering some 32 hectacres and built in the shape of a star. It was capable of housing 6,000 troops. I must admit to tagging along with the boys purely because I felt I needed the exercise rather than any desire to see the Fort/Castle but I found it quite beautiful. The Figueres tourist board needs to visit Port Arthur as they could make this into an amazing tourist attraction as it is currently sadly overlooked by visitors to the town.

Having ticked off the sights we returned to the hotel to rest and recuperate before dining in the hotel’s ornate restaurant (one of Dali’s haunts):

I had initially learnt about Cadaques from the glorious photos of a food and travel photographer called Dave Hagerman (check him out on Instagram @davehagerman). He had visited Cadaques and photographed the town and numerous sea urchin meals, which is apparently a famed local dish in the region. So, when I spied asparagus with smoked salmon and a sea urchin foam on the menu I knew I had to have it – and it was yummy:

I continued on my adventurous food way and followed this up with rabbit and spicy snails! Also very tasty, although a few too many snails for me. I think the waiter was very impressed with my ordering, and joked that I could use the snail getting out implement on Pete, if required.

So, all in all our 24 hours in Figueres was very successful. Next morning found us at the bus stop, ready to catch the 10.00am bus to Cadaques. The bus trip is a bit of a milk run, stopping at various places before tackling the windy road across the hills into Cadaques. After an hour on the hot and stuffy bus, on windy roads, we were grateful to be disgorged into the sunny streets of Cadaques – which was absolutely heaving with tourists. We thought if this is what it is like in May it must be complete bedlam in summer, so were reassured when the lady at the hotel told us it was a holiday Monday, and it was as busy today as in the height of the season. 

Cadaques is stunning – a small, white washed village hugging the coastline. I imagine it is a bit like many Greek villages, but with less blue trim. 

We spent a very happy afternoon wandering the streets with all the other (mainly French and Spanish) tourists in the bright sunshine. 

We briefly visited the church, which sits next to our hotel (the chiming of the bell wakes us in the morning, and mercifully ceases at midnight):

The lanes are narrow and cobblestoned or paved, and every home seems to own a cat. The cats freely wander the streets and can be found sunning themselves in every nook and cranny:

Another quaint feature of the town is the painted doors of the service boxes (electricity? Water?) outside many of the houses:

Our home for the two nights is Hostal Vehi, run by a very friendly local family:

On our room was described as having city views. I guess that was true!

Certainly the Hostal is very comfortable and bright and sparkling clean, having undergone a recent refurbishment I suspect. Part of the refurb was obviously state of the art toilets that incorporate an electronic bidet. We were too frightened to touch anything in case we ended up with an unintended squirt up the derrière:

That evening we enjoyed a delicious Catalan seafood stew called Zarzuela at a bustling but very friendly little seafood restaurant, La Sirena, and toddled happily off to bed after admiring the night lights of the village:

I must admit to exaggerating a tiny bit when I entitled this entry on the Dali trail , as in reality we were coming to Cadaques regardless of the Dali link – it just so happened that there is another Dali ‘museum’ in Cadaques, or actually at Portlligat, which is alongside Cadaques. This museum is in fact Dali’s house, where he lived and worked from 1930 until 1982 (he moved to Pubol Castle for the last few years of his life after the death of his wife Gala). And, I also have to admit that we only saw the house from the outside as it was completely booked out on Monday, and on Tuesday we wanted to hike to Cap de Creus and only limited times were available so we missed our opportunity – next visit!

The Cap de Creus hike was a 16km round trip, along a well sign posted and popular pathway through olive groves and gorse bushes. Throughout the hills are dry stone terracing and a large number of small stone huts and stone mounds, which we assume were for shepards to shelter in, or maybe something to do with olive storage. The pathway often afforded us views into small bays and across the Mediterranean Sea.

Out of nowhere a shaggy dog appeared on the track and was clearly intent on guiding us towards the Cap as he would go ahead then turn back to look for us and not continue until we came into his sight. He led us all the way up to the top, and then disappeared. We thought he might get commission for leading people to the restaurant!

It certainly worked in our case as after admiring the 360 degree views we decamped to the restaurant and enjoyed lunch on the terrace – sitting in the sun and admiring the view.

The walk back was in blazing sunshine so we were grateful to finally get back to Cadaques for a shower and rest, before yet another evening meal. My original choice of Can Tito came to nothing as it was closed, so we moved on to Casa Nun which had been recommended in various sources. We were hardly greeted with open arms, and by the harried looks on the two waiting staff (one of whom I think was the English, or American, owner) and the way the dishes were slapped on the table we felt something may be amiss tonight. The food was okay – my fish soup starter was terrific but the grilled rabbit was dry and unexciting. But, the house Rioja that was part of the set menu was delicious, and for 22euro (including bread and a dessert) pretty good value in this tourist town – and, I loved the tiles on the wall, which the owner told me were original.

This morning we had to drag ourselves away from this charming seaside village and return to Girona, but I certainly hope we return one day to spend longer just chilling out.