Wednesday, 23 March 2016

"We All Came Out To Montreux ...

... On the Lake Geneva shoreline”

So begins the song Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple, a song from their 1972 album Machine Head that tells the accident-prone story of their recording sessions there and which was inevitably running through our heads this weekend as we did, indeed, head “out to Montreux” to see Corsican folk/rock band I Muvrini.

Our first view of the lake Geneva shoreline

Lake Geneva is one of the largest lakes in western Europe, and is surrounded by mountains on most sides: the Jura to the west, the Chablais Alps to the south, and the Bernese Oberland to the east, with snow still draped across the higher slopes.

Distant snowy mountains

Montreux lies on the north east shore where the lake is more alpine in character. It’s certainly beautiful, and never more so than on a sunny spring morning such as the one we encountered on arrival, and the whole impression gained was much more “Riviera” than “mountain resort”.

Spring blossom


“To make records with a mobile”

Well, not to “make records” exactly, but music was certainly the focus for this short, sharp trip.

The origins of this weekend go back a decade or more, when we first came across the music of I Muvrini on a visit to Corsica in the early 2000s. Since then, we have harboured the thought that we might one day like to see them play live, but opportunities to do so proved few and far between as they rarely play outside of francophone countries. So, while the thought never quite disappeared, with the passage of time it had gradually worked its way to the back of our minds.

One of many sculptures beside the lake

Until August last year, that is, when Missy G spotted they were playing in Montreux on a Saturday night. Soon after, I received a phone call.

“What are you doing on the night of 19th March next year?” she said.

“Why?”, I asked.

“Well, I’m going to see I Muvrini in Montreux”.

"Can I come, too?"

OK, so Switzerland is not exactly on our doorstep. It’s a long way to go for a gig! But we had wanted to do something like this for a good few years, and I’m a firm believer that “whatever will be will be”. We were free, could get modestly-priced flights at convenient times and knew it was an easy transfer directly from Geneva airport. All of a sudden the stars came into alignment: this was our opportunity, and we should take it.

Looking back along the lake

Of course, taking just a weekend over the trip meant “we didn’t have much time”, but that which remained allowed us to explore the town and lake-side. Prompt transport and gloriously spring-like conditions meant we had the majority of Saturday and Sunday morning in which to do so.

We opted to follow the shoreline path towards the next town, Villeneuve. Walking beside the lake on a gorgeous spring day was a delight. There was a good sprinkling of waterfowl dotting the surface – Coot, Great Crested Grebe, Goosander, Tufted Duck and Red-crested Pochard, to name but a few – and we ambled along enjoying the relative quiet of the morning.

Chateau de Chillon #1

Chatueu de Chillon #2

Along the way we passed the Chateau de Chillon, an imposing castle on the lake shore, and passed the local fire service out on manoeuvers. Perhaps “some stupid with a flare gun” had been making mischief?

Before long the outskirts of Villeneuve came into sight. Amazingly, this route forms part of the Via Francigena, a 1,100-mile pilgrimage route between Canterbury and Rome. We keep happening across these ancient routes: perhaps it’s some kind of omen?

Route 70: the Via Francigena runs from Canterbury to Rome

Anyway, it was precisely the sort of day that an idyllic lunch would consist of delicious pizza from a wood-fired oven and a glass of chilled white wine. So that’s exactly what we had, and very good it was too. Then we retraced our steps along the shore back to Montreux in time to prepare for the evening’s concert. 

Igor Stravinsky / Firebird

The arts, and music in particular, has played a significant part in Montreux’s recent heritage, the peace and beauty providing inspiration and the chance of creativity since the early part of the 20th Century. Igor Stravinsky lived here for a time, there is an internationally-acclaimed jazz festival held each year, and Queen recorded their seventh album Jazz here in 1978.

Statue of Freddie Mercury

I Muvrini’s brand of Corsican-influenced folk rock might not be to everyone’s taste, but the 2,800-strong audience lapped up every minute of the almost 3-hour performance. The band perform in both the Corsican and French languages, and there is a strong political dimension to the songs. The music employs the unique paghjella polyphonic vocal style which has become synonymous with the Corsican sense of national identity.

I Muvrini

During the evening such subjects as the Paris bombing, Corsican independence and the Environment were touched upon, and the new album Invicta covers the subject of “music for non-violence”. Here is a link to one of their songs:

I speak little French and no Corsican, but such music – emotionally-charged and beautifully played and sung – easily transcends the language barrier, and the impact of the songs and the message within them was not lost on me - or the rest of the crowd. It was a fabulous night, and we left on a high.

“Swiss time was running out”

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. After an early breakfast, we were out and about again, looking to make the most of our morning.

Sunday morning lakeshore

Marina at Clarens

First off, we headed along the lake shore in the other direction as far as Clarens, then decided to climb up into the hills behind the town. 

Looking out over Montreux

Following our noses, we ascended through the suburbs and through a couple of villages whose names I forget as we reached the edge of the woods and an enticing number of footpath signs. I do remember we turned round shortly before reaching Glion – our time was running out, and we had a train to catch.

Near Glion

Good walking tantalisingly close

  “I know we’ll never forget”

It was, of course, a memorable weekend. Not only because of the band and the walking we managed to fit in, but for the lovely scenery and ease of access. In fact, we were really surprised how easy it was, how much time we had to play with, and how much walking there was to be done. 

45 minutes from the centre of Montreux and the walking options open up

If you ever wanted a quick weekend getaway, then Montreux makes for an excellent choice. There is much to explore, especially along the lake shore and in the mountains behind the town. It's easy to get to, there is loads of choice when it comes to hotels and food, and the whole trip probably came in at no more than a weekend in London with dinner and a show or an away game in the Champions' League.

We certainly won't forget our time there, and who knows: one day, we may be back!

Monday, 14 March 2016

London LOOP - Day 9

High Barnet to Enfield Lock Station

15.00 miles

And so to March’s instalment of the London LOOP diaries.

With memories of last month’s mud-fest still lingering in our minds, we’d penciled in this weekend as a possible for the next section of the LOOP. The week beforehand, we’d checked the forecast for the Saturday, found it to be promising with spring-like weather predicted, and booked rail tickets in preparation.

Then, mid-week, we’d had some of the heaviest rains of the winter, with fields awash, roads running with water, rivers breaking their banks to flood acres of low-lying ground, and transport chaos. As they say where we come from: “bugger”!

Setting off across the fields behind High Barnet station

Still, we persevered and hoped for the best, optimistic that the early train-and-tube trip to High Barnet via Euston would be rewarded.

It’s been said on many occasions that you make your own luck. Well, to paraphrase golfer Gary Player’s anecdote, it seems like “the more we plan, the luckier we get”.

Although it was still a touch overcast as we set off from High Barnet tube station, the day was set to brighten up nicely. Before long, we had regained the LOOP, crossed the fields behind the station, negotiated a few residential streets and entered King George’s Fields.

King George's Fields

Truth to tell, it was muddy. But muddy in a totally different league to last time round, and although we wouldn’t see the day out unsullied, it was at least manageable and we weren’t calf-deep in the stuff.

Hadley Green

Hadley Green proved to be a delightful surprise, and there were plenty of people pottering around the open spaces. We passed some 17th Century almshouses, rows of beautiful 18th Century houses, the former home of Dr. Livingstone (I presume) and the attractive church of St Mary the Virgin.

Church of St Mary the Virgin

Moving on, we walked across Monken Hadley Common, edged by more fine properties, stopped briefly to chat to a bird-watcher who asked if we were doing the LOOP and warned us of muddy paths ahead (not that bad, actually) and continued down Baker’s Hill into the woods. 

Path into Monken Hadley Woods

Interesting trees

We had a brief stop for coffee and a snack, took a short detour to see Jack’s Lake, then continued to Cockfosters and the end of Section 16 of the LOOP.

Jack's Lake

Mandarin Duck - these birds were introduced into Britain from
East Asia, where the species is now in decline 

Beyond Cockfosters tube station, the LOOP headed into Trent Country Park. We had been looking forward to this part of the walk ever since we had begun – not because of the undoubted attractiveness of the parklands, or because of its association with the Sassoon family (Siegfried’s cousin Philip bought the estate in 1909), or even because of its use as an “information gathering” centre and POW camp during WWII. 

Entering Trent Park

No, the reason for our interest was because after the war the house was turned into a college of arts, humanities and teacher training, and my father spent a happy time studying there during the 1950s.

The drive to the main house

Much has undoubtedly changed in the intervening six decades. The park is currently used for recreational purposes, with cafés, walks, nature trails and other activities provided for local residents, and is much used if today’s showing of families, runners and dog-walkers is anything to go by.

The main house

The house, though, seems unoccupied, the college buildings (latterly the Trent Park campus of Middlesex University) have lain unused since 2012 (despite being bought and sold a couple of times) and are tending towards dereliction, and all is cordoned off by miles of metal fencing.

A few of the many daffodils that flower each spring

Even the famed show of daffodils couldn’t quite work their golden spring-time magic and, to be honest, I think my father might have been slightly saddened if he’d seen what we’ve seen today. We have since discovered that there is a new owner in place with plans for a major renovation, so all being well there is a happy ending to come.

We stopped for morning coffee at the café by the car park, and afterwards detoured from the route of the LOOP to look round the grounds. Rejoining the route from where we had left off, we followed the path through the estate grounds and past the lakes, and I phoned my Dad to let him know what we were up to.

Rear of the main house from across the lakes

Beyond the lakes, the path climbed through woods, crossed the road by the Sassoon Obelisk and entered the fields opposite. A muddy descent brought us out beside Salmon’s Brook, which we followed eastwards for a while before climbing towards the A1005 Ridgeway road. A handy bench provided the opportunity to break for sandwiches.

It was just shy of 2.00pm as we set off again, past the Royal Chace Hotel and along Rectory Farm Close. We crossed over Turkey Brook and under the railway line, and entered Hilly Fields Park near the cricket ground by St John’s Church at Clay Hill.

Cricket field with St John's church Clay Hill to the rear

Hilly Fields Park is another of the pleasant open spaces that this walk connects. Turkey Brook winds slowly through it, and again there were plenty of locals out and about enjoying it.

Hilly Fields Park, complete with bandstand - all rather "Trumpton"

Then it was on along the Mile & A Quarter Footpath towards Forty Hall, with Turkey Brook to our left, fishing ponds to the right and rhododendrons either side.

We crossed Forty Hill by Maiden’s Bridge. This is the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh is reputed to have lain down his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth I would be able to keep her feet dry. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. What I do know is that there are muddier places in the vicinity, places where shoe protection would be more appropriate – we know, we’ve been through them! Perhaps that’s why he was later imprisoned and beheaded.

View east from the footbridge over the A10

Crossing the main A10 by a metal footbridge, we passed the station at Turkey Street and continued on towards Enfield Lock station. After a day that had seen us walk through some lovely villages, parks and rural areas, this last mile-or-so was a bit of an anticlimax. Of course, we’d have to do it next time if not now, so in that sense it was fine. But I must confess to feeling a touch ill-at-ease on these streets, and was glad when we had reached the station at the end of Section 17 of the LOOP.

Overall, though, it had been another excellent day – good weather, and quite warm, with more than a hint of Spring in the air. And the end is in sight for our LOOP adventure – just a couple more days to go to reach Purfleet – but that’ll have to wait until next time.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Winter Walking In Seefeld - Day 7

On Speck: A Morning Walk and lunch at the Gasthof Neuleutasch

6.00 miles

It's always a sad moment when it's time to leave after a great holiday. But at least that means you've HAD a great holiday, and we certainly have no complaints on that score after this fantastic week in Seefeld.

However, with bags packed and last-minute shopping complete, we had some time to fill before we needed to head back to the airport.

Walking back from Leutasch yesterday, we had seen a likely-looking restaurant for lunch - about an hour's walk each way, and a promising menu to boot.

Mountains beyond Leutasch

Another lovely sunny morning

More snow-capped hills beyond Seefeld

Once again, it was a lovely sunny morning, and we thoroughly enjoyed the chance to get a few more miles under our belts. Something else we thoroughly enjoyed: our lunch! We chose platters of home-smoked ham (Speck) that came complete with bread-and-butter, pickles and a glass of Schnapps!

Platter of Speck, with bread, butter, pickles and a glass of Schnapps.

The ham was strong in flavour and robustly smoked, but delicately cut and melt-in-the-mouth tender, and we luxuriated in the sunshine eating, drinking and making the most of every last mouthful and every last minute.

Lunch at the Gasthof Neuleutasch

Then it was time to head back, slightly sad at leaving, but in the knowledge of a great week with lots of walking, great food, rest and relaxation.

I'm not a betting man, on the whole - but I reckon we'll be back for more one of these days!

Winter Walking In Seefeld - Day 6

Leut-ering With Intent: Mittenwald to Seefeld via Leutasch

14.75 miles / Ascent = 635m / Descent = 349m

Some winter days are just perfect. Cloudless blue skies, bright sunshine and crystal clear air that makes everything seem close and sharp. It's neither too cold to bear nor too warm to spoil the frosting on the trees, and there’s a sense of expectation and exhilaration as if secrets will be revealed.

Today was to be our last full day, and was just such a day. All we needed now was a cracking walk worthy of the conditions we had been so lucky to receive - and that's just what we had.

Leaving Mittenwald

Our plan was simple. Weather permitting, we would catch the bus to Mittenwald, just over the German border, then walk back to Seefeld the long way via the Leutasch valley.

Sunshine on the high mountains

And weather did permit. Not only that, it became clear there were lots of lovely high mountains around (like the Karwedel range) which would be great for summer walking, with splendid views to be had in all directions.

Our old friend, the Jakobsweg

After alighting the bus in Mittenwald, we left town and headed towards the mountain restaurant at Gletscherschliff. On the way we passed the entrance to the Leutaschklamm walk - a walk of suspended walkways and high bridges making its way through the Leutasch gorge, which, sadly for us, is only open in the summer months.

The start of the gorge walk, Leutascherklamm

Glorious sunshine on the walk up to Gletscherschliff

Already it was glorious. Our path took us up into the woods, and soon we crossed the border back into Austria. At a time when the UK is facing up to an "In-Out" referendum on EU membership, the ability for walkers to cross unhindered from one country to another freely and without challenge serves as a timely reminder as to some of the more positive achievements of the European project. 

Grenzenlos - literally, "borderless" - a sign of friendship
and co-operation between nations

Standing at the border, with the red, yellow and black pole of
Germany and the blue and white pole of Austria

On the descent to Schanz

From the border post, we followed the gently descending path to meet the road at Schanz. A short stretch of road walking followed, before we picked up a wide path along the valley bottom following the edge of the woods and skirting a number of the mini-villages that make up the Leutasch commune: Burggraben, Unterkirchen, Lochlehn, Reindlau and Puitbach before arriving in Gasse for a well-earned lunch of drinks and Apfel Strudel at Poli's Hutte.

In the Leutasch valley #1: near Schanz

In the Leutasch valley #2: near Unterkirchen

In the Leutasch valley #3: near Reindlau

In the Leutasch valley #4: near Reindlau

In the Leutasch valley #5: near Reindlau

Poli's Hutte

As the weather was still good and we were feeling fine and rested, we continued with our plan to walk to Seefeld. After crossing the valley, we followed the road through Weidach and picked up the path that climbed out of the valley, passing through Neuleutasch as it went. Despite the proximity to the main road, it was a nice undulating walk through woods and open spaces.

Near Neuleutasch

We had a brief break for coffee and bananas half way back, then carried on through the woods to reach Seefeld just as the sun was just disappearing behind some early-evening haze. 

As we were getting ready for dinner, we reflected on a superb day - almost 15 miles of fantastic walking in excellent countryside on a glorious winter's day, much of it away from the hurly-burly of life and the commercialism of ski resorts. 

What more could you want?