What can you learn on an Acoustic Walking Weekend in Wales?

Last weekend I went on an acoustic walking weekend run by the Plas-y-Brenin outdoor centre in North Wales. If you’re like me (luckily for you, you probably aren’t) then your first thought on reading this might be “what on earth is acoustic walking? That sounds a bit weird, maybe something that hippies would do.” Don’t worry, I’m not about to go all New Age on you. The Big Acoustic Walk is simply an event run a couple of times a year where you walk during the day and play, sing or listen to acoustic music in the evening. People bring along their instruments (guitars, banjos, accordions, ukuleles, and even a violin), form ad-hoc groups, and get involved (or not). If you’ve ever been to an open mic night, it’s pretty much like that. If you haven’t, all I can say is that it’s more fun than it sounds, as long as you’re prepared to tolerate a wide range of abilities and tastes (I’m not very good at that last bit, but more on that later).

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As I sat on the train at the end of the weekend, still buzzing from the adrenalin, and having eventually given up battling the Virgin trains wifi connection which was slow enough to make your brain rot, I pondered what I’d learnt over the last two days. One of the first things I realised was that not only does walking during the day and music at night fit together very well (other than perhaps for the hardy souls who were still drinking and playing at 4am on the Saturday morning before getting up 3 hours later for a day on the hill), but also that this weekend was about getting out of your comfort zone for many people in a variety of different ways. There were different grades of walk on offer – from art and photography walks to gentle strolls on the coast to full-on proper mountains, and with small groups and expert leaders it was a fantastic opportunity for some to push themselves onto a tougher day out in the hill than they might be used to.

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Some interesting weather conditions

For many of the musicians, it was a terrifying chance to sing or play an instrument in public to a bunch of strangers. And for others, it was a chance to go away for a weekend to a place they’d never been to where they didn’t know anyone, be forced to socially interact with a bunch of strangers (potentially sharing a bedroom with a mad axe murderer), and spend a day getting cold, wet and muddy in the outdoors instead of sitting at home playing Scrabble with their cat. Handy tip: if you don’t have a cat to play Scrabble with, you can play your left hand against your right hand; however, it can be tempting to cheat and favour one hand over the other in order to get a high score. Not that I’ve ever done that. Ahem. But as usual, I digress.

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Autumn colours on the hill

So what did I learn from the weekend? First, let’s talk about the music. I have an extremely high intolerance of bad music (stuff I don’t like, which is quite a lot, but also out-of-tune singing, in particular, feels like nails down a blackboard. Not that I claim to be a world-class singer myself – indeed I am not – but I can spot a rogue flat note at 100 paces). So listening to a bunch of amateurs is always a bit of a risky business. I don’t play any instruments that are useful in this kind of context (piano and bassoon, in case you were wondering), and while I do sing (and have sung in some amazingly talented choral groups, as well as some slightly less talented ones) I don’t know the words to anything and am far too shy to get up and perform except after a lot of practice and a lot of gradual building up to it. I realised that there were many people in the room who felt like this, and in fact a number of people had been to this event several times before plucking up the courage to actually get up and perform themselves. There was even a lady who recited some of her own (mostly very funny) poems (the ones that weren’t funny weren’t meant to be funny). That always takes some bottle. At the bar, I spotted a number of swift shots of whisky being consumed just before a performer was about to go on stage for the first time. I don’t blame them. I’m working on the “confidence about singing and playing music in public” thing because, like dancing and speaking foreign languages, I’m terrified at the thought of doing it in front of other people, but do actually enjoy performing once I can get over that. It was interesting seeing people at varying stages of the confidence spectrum, especially those who after a few drinks, a bit of encouragement from the audience, and after seeing others perform, gradually managed to build up their confidence to get up and do whatever it was they could do. And everyone was very encouraging, because they’d either been in the same situation themselves once, or wished they had the bottle – or ability – to perform themselves.

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And here we move onto the theme of this post, which is all about camaraderie and confidence. It takes bottle not only to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but even just to admit that you’re not as tough as you might outwardly appear to be. Unless you’re a psychopath (and probably even then too) you almost certainly have something you worry about your ability to do, whether it’s to interact socially with strangers, to sing in public, to walk up a mountain, jump out of an aeroplane, or even to find your way to the toilets when you’re visually impaired. Or all of the above. And on the flipside, if you see someone struggling to do one of these things, you almost certainly want to help them achieve it. Of course if you’re a psychopath and you see someone scared to jump out of a plane, you might be tempted to push them out, but that’s slightly different. I always worry a little bit when I go on active trips about how people will respond to the fact that I have numerous issues which make walking up (and down) mountains challenging. Not to mention the fact that I often find walking into a bar on my own terrifying, especially since I can’t recognise people even at point blank range and don’t know if I know them or not, even if I’ve just spent the whole day with them. It sounds silly, but it can be desperately embarrassing (or lonely, or both at once).

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I can’t speak for the other groups, but I don’t think there were any mad axe murderers in ours

But it turns out that on almost every active trip I’ve been on, there’s someone else who has issues of some sort too. Some people worry about their lack of experience, some have physical limitations of all shapes and sizes, some just have inadequate kit and struggle with the conditions, some have social issues. I find people are often nervous to even talk about their fears or limitations until they discover that they’re not the only ones with a body that doesn’t work properly. But the corollary to this is that the person who isn’t very fit might still be able to help me find the right route on a tricky scrambling section. I might not be able to see very well, but I can help the person with a dodgy leg over a tricky rock manoeuvre, or even point out a handy foothold I found on a rock that they didn’t clock. Or I might save them from falling in a bog by falling in it first and recommending they don’t follow me. Hot tip: there’s no better way of making someone who’s feeling a bit awkward or inadequate feel better about themselves than for them to be able to help someone else.

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The face of achievement. We all have our personal challenges to overcome.

At this point, I must say a word of thanks to Plas-y-Brenin and the organisers of the weekend – it was something a bit different and definitely more fun than sitting at home playing Scrabble with an imaginary cat. Our group had two splendid walks in some interesting weather conditions (rain, hail, snow, sunshine, bogs, high winds and a lot of mud), with an ascent of Moel Siabod on the first day and a traverse of Tryfan on the second day (hastily rearranged from the original plan after the weather conditions deteriorated). Our guide Dan was superb in adapting to the weather conditions and the needs of the group, and in managing that perfect but hard-to-achieve balance between making sure that we were safe while still letting us also do our own thing in our own way and challenging ourselves appropriately.

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Our guide Dan

I’ve written before about why you would pay to walk up hills with a bunch of strangers when you could do it for free. I love the fact that not only do I always seem to have a great time, but I also learn a lot. Whether it’s something about myself, some useful tip, or something totally useless but interesting. I’m sure I learnt some useless facts on this weekend, but I appear to have forgotten them all. On the other hand, I learnt a useful tip from a cardiac nurse: if someone’s having a heart attack on a hill it’s best to remove as much of their clothing as you can, even if it results in them getting hypothermia, as being cold slows their heart rate down and increases their likelihood of surviving. Even if they lose a limb from frostbite, it’s better than dying. Which results in another top tip: if you’re going to have a heart attack on a mountain, it’s better to do it in Snowdonia in winter than in the desert in summer, for the same reason. Disclaimer: if this advice is wrong, don’t blame me, blame the person who told me. And finally, I also learnt that it’s a good idea not to pause after the word “fat” when watching someone go through a narrow gap and commenting that it would be tricky to fit through if you have a fat rucksack. This is what happens when you have a reputation for speaking bluntly and not always thinking before you speak. Still, nobody got stuck, so it was all OK.

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So my final word on comfort zones for today. If you’re struggling to think of a way to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and playing music in front of strangers isn’t for you (or you don’t want to wait until the next Big Acoustic Walk), you could always have a go at the Will4Adventure Challenge4Charity in April and see if you can walk 50 miles in 24 hours (spoiler alert: you don’t have to walk it all, but I bet you’ll be surprised how far you get). More on that in another post.

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Wet, bedraggled and smiling at the top of Moel Siabod. Who wouldn’t want to walk up hills with this bunch?

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There’s more to the Alps than Mt Blanc

On a last minute whim, I booked an Exodus walking holiday at the end of August to the Queyras. I’m sure most of you are already wondering, just like me, where on earth the Queyras is, although the sharper tools in the rack will probably have guessed from the title of this piece that it’s somewhere in the Alps. To be more precise, it’s a relatively little-known (by everyone other than the French) part of the Alps in South-East France, just across the border from Turin, stretching around the town of Briancon and bordering on the other (possibly slightly better-known) national parks les Ecrins and Vallouise. Don’t worry if that doesn’t help much, the main idea is that it’s in the Alps, in France, and quiet.

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The brochure was actually a little bit underwhelming, especially in terms of the photos which really didn’t do this trip justice. What attracted me was a week of fairly strenuous walking in the mountains, with some scrambling thrown in for good measure, in what I hoped would be good weather. A last-ditch attempt to get a bit of sunshine at the end of the summer. Because I’d been expecting to be out of action during August and September due to (yet more) shoulder surgery, I hadn’t planned any active holidays, but since nothing seemed to be forthcoming from the hospital on that front, I decided to search for a last-minute trip and this was one of the few which fitted the bill and still had availability.

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Stunning colours on the hills

As regular readers of this blog will know, I like to push myself physically and mentally on my holidays (I realise for some this is a weird definition of holiday), and fully expected it to fulfil such needs. Of course, I then worried for the remaining couple of weeks before the trip about whether I’d be fit enough, and threw in a few extra spin classes at the gym to be sure. As usual, I needn’t have worried unduly, as I was perfectly fine, even if not the fittest member of the group by a long stretch, and was surprised to find at the end of each day that I still have plenty of energy left and could still have done more ascent or a few more hours. The benefit of having lots of very fit friends is that I always tend to underestimate my fitness in comparison, so it’s always nice to find out I’m not totally useless.

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Ready for action and full of energy!

So anyway, on to the important stuff. What was the trip – and the Queyras – actually like? I hardly know where to start. The scenery in particular far exceeded my expectations. Round almost every corner was a spectacular view with plenty of diversity, from tranquil lakes to jagged edges to slippery scree ascents to rolling pastures. I was particularly looking forward to the scrambling sections, as one of my favourite activities, and on day 2 I was not disappointed. Although the scrambling itself was not particularly challenging, it was still great fun, and the frisson of danger thrown in for good measure on a couple of steep and narrow ridge ascents ticked all the boxes.

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Scrambling fun

My only “criticism” of our guide Yves from France Outdoors (and it’s really not a criticism) was that I like the whole mental and physical challenge of figuring out the best route and manoeuvres myself on the scrambling sections (see my recent post on climbing) rather than being told exactly where to put my feet and hands on every step! Of course, he was only trying to help and to make sure that we got up and down safely. And sometimes it was very useful to have suggestions, of course. I really can’t fault Yves for his splendid guiding on the trip, however. I was particularly pleased to be able to put to good use some of the bouldering techniques I’d learnt from Will on his rock climbing course the previous week. Yves reiterated Will’s constant advice about trusting our feet in his own inimitable (OK, we may have imitated it occasionally when he wasn’t looking) style: “be heavy on your feet, like elephants”. I was fine with this, as I can generally manage to resemble an elephant – much easier than emulating a ballerina anyway. Actually elephants are not at all heavy on their feet and walk on their tiptoes, avoiding pressure on their heels (fun fact of the day). In fact, Yves may not have actually told us to walk like elephants, I probably just added that bit in my head. My years of ballroom dancing taught me all about the importance of foot pressure through the floor and weight transfer, even if I’m still sometimes a bit nervous about trusting my feet on wet rock.  In case you’re wondering, I learnt nothing from ballet classes when I was 6 apart from that I was rubbish at looking like a ballerina but excellent at looking like an elephant. But as usual, I digress.

So back to the Queyras. I was equally not disappointed by the other important aspect of the trip: sampling the French culinary delights and local hospitality. I probably love France more than any other European country (apart from England, but it’s a close-run thing), and speak almost fluent French (it was once, but I’ve forgotten a lot), yet for some reason I never seem to go on holiday there any more. I certainly remembered why I love it so much, especially the more rural parts. We stayed in a number of small gites and mountain huts, each delightful in their own way and a little bit quirky, but all extremely comfortable and with plenty of succulent meat, cheese and vegetables washed down with local red wine. I couldn’t ask for more on that front!

 

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The very scenic Refuge Agnel

What will come as the biggest surprise to regular readers, and/or those who know me in real life, is that there were no unusual accidents or even incidents that befell me or anyone else on the trip. Well, other than the poor chap who was ill on the first day and whom we therefore jettisoned for the rest of the week, along with his wife. (We weren’t that mean really – but they did have to leave us from day 2). And a minor ankle injury for me mid-trip, which thankfully got better after a day of pain). Sorry for the disappointment in the lack of swashbuckling tales of daredevilry, fighting death or even just funny stories (although my mum will be happy to hear that I returned unscathed). I’ll have to go back another time and fall off a cliff ensuing in an exciting helicopter rescue (still never managed that one, but there’s a first time for everything), or at least get attacked by a giant man-eating marmot just to add a bit more spice to the blog, otherwise you’ll all get bored of living my adventurous pursuits vicariously. I’ll try harder next time. We did see lots of marmots, in case you were wondering.

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Some of the death-defying ridges we traversed

I could mention the entertaining characters I met on the trip, but it would be unfair to talk about Alan’s hours of packing and unpacking his bags and creating a floordrobe every night and morning, the snoring dramas (if you’re going a trip involving group sleeping arrangements, it’s par for the course – see my  top tips for staying in a hostel), the daily linguistic definition challenge from yours truly (and the great answers provided), the attempt to send anniversary flowers, the “bee shepherd”, the (poor) attempts at colour coordination on the hill, the stories about shepherd dogs and dragons, and much more. The most important thing I learnt on the trip, however, was never to lick green rocks.

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You don’t have to be good at it to go rock climbing

When you’re blind and waiting for your third shoulder surgery, the obvious thing to do to while away the time is to go on a rock climbing course. Well, if you’re me anyway.

Those who know me won’t be surprised that this is what I chose to do a couple of weeks ago. It kind of happened by accident. I’d been wanting to do a climbing course for a number of years (after all, I live in Sheffield, where 90% of all able-bodied people seem to go rock climbing) but I kept getting stalled. First by the wrong dates for the course I wanted to do, and then by two frozen shoulders which have rendered me almost immobile (certainly in terms of upper body use) over the past 3 1/2 years. I’d therefore thought it prudent to wait until my arms were usable again. After the first two operations (arthroscopic capsular release, in case you’re interested, which basically means slicing scar tissue off the joint with a sharp knife and prising the two bits of it apart), I have a lot more movement and less pain (I couldn’t even get my hands in my pockets or above shoulder height for 2 years), but I still can’t put weight on my arms if they’re above shoulder height, and I can’t rotate my right shoulder more than a few degrees, so reaching behind me or up in the air is impossible. In comparison, not being able to see properly is fairly trivial in terms of climbing, though still a little challenging when trying to figure out where to put your hands and feet, or to plan a route when you can’t see any of the holds or even whether there’s a crack or overhang looming. This applies to descending as well as ascending, incidentally! But I agreed to go because two friends were planning to book a course with our good friend Will from Will4Adventure, and wanted a third person to split the cost. Plus I’d have been insanely jealous if they’d done it without me, since they were staying at my house for the duration. So I figured I’d live dangerously and give it a go.

I must admit I was very nervous, as with all things new. In addition to the medical issues, I’m also not brilliant with heights, though generally better on solid ground than things like ladders, and not so bad when roped on. However, I’ve learnt over the years a number of techniques to conquer these fears (mostly, thinking about something else!) and figured that that was probably the least of my worries!

Our first task was a spot of bouldering to get us used to trusting our feet on small holds and slippery rock close to the ground (and most importantly, to dirty my brand new climbing shoes). I was fine with going up, but found it rather more terrifying descending forwards, even if only a few feet from the ground. I had to employ a few breathing exercises to keep my calm (reciting poetry for me works well as a distraction technique – I particularly like G. K. Chesterton’s Lepanto as it has a great rhythm to it and makes me feel brave!).

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We then proceeded to real rock and ropes, which was much more appealing. My first attempt was not entirely successful (actually, a complete failure in ascending more than a few feet, as I couldn’t get past a slightly tricky section which necessitated a bit of upper body weight bearing and some slippery footholds on wet rock (it had been raining earlier that morning), and I felt a complete idiot as I had to admit defeat after several attempts. Maybe I really was destined to wait until I had at least one fully working shoulder, and preferably two. My friends Matt and Lizzy, being less impaired, managed it with ease of course.

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Matt making it look easy

However, after a spot of lunch (a homemade Brie, spinach and caramelised carrot chutney wrap, in case you were wondering), I decided to have a go at the next route which the others had successfully climbed. None of us were very optimistic about my chances, but we thought I might make it at least to the first ledge, about a third of the way up, which would be better than nothing. Sheer determination kicked in at this point as I wanted to prove that it wasn’t a ridiculous idea trying to climb without using my upper body, and with gritted teeth I persevered and made it through both tricky sections to the top with not a little pain and no doubt some ridiculous facial expressions. The good thing about my shoulder condition is that I can’t really damage my shoulders further by forcing them through the pain barrier, as they simply stick when they get to a certain point.

 

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I soon learnt to find handholds that were not far above shoulder height, so that I could push down with my weight rather than pull up on my arms

After that achievement, there was no stopping me, and I successfully managed all the remaining routes with varying degrees of grimace, pain and terror at the moves Will was encouraging me to make. Sadly, I have the flexibility of an aardvark and the upper body strength of an ant, even discounting my injuries, so reaching some of the proposed holds was nigh on impossible, making for a lot of arguing on my part in response to the instructions shouted from above or below! “What do you mean put my foot in that crack? That’s ridiculous, a gnat’s toenail wouldn’t fit there.” Occasionally, Will’s instructions did turn out to be correct though, and I was left feeling silly at my initial disbelief. It’s amazing what you can do when you stop thinking and just blindly follow orders, even if your trust in your own ability is at rock bottom.

The good thing about having limitations, however, is that you’re forced to think outside the box and find alternative solutions, something I know all about from trying to do sport (and other things) with limited sight. If you can’t reach a foot- or handhold, you look for another. And if you can’t see one, you feel around until something sticks.  You’re really forced to use your brain as much as your brawn (just as well, as I don’t have much brawn) and to think laterally a lot more than you would otherwise. And this for me is the absolute crux of the matter. Climbing isn’t really about getting to the top, it’s about finding solutions to problems, which luckily happens to be my favourite pastime. I couldn’t care less about physical skill. OK, that’s a lie. I care a lot about physical skill. I would love to have the ripped muscles of a world class climber, the agility of a gazelle, and the physical strength of Hercules. But I care a lot more about mental agility and overcoming the challenge of finding the best route that allows you to get from the bottom to the top without falling off. And just like doing the cryptic crossword in the Times rather than the quick one, additional physical problems mean extra mental stamina is required. It’s like a combination of chess, Jenga and Scrabble all in one.

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Why would you go on a cycling holiday to Albania?

Those who know me well would never ask this question, but that’s because the word “holiday” for me is synonymous with “unusual” and “challenging” (and occasionally “terrifying”). For normal human beings, however, it seems like an odd choice of destination. Albania isn’t really renowned for much, other than its proximity to Kosovo, drug trafficking (the “epicentre of the European drugs trade”, if you believe the Daily Mail and Huffington Post, at any rate), gangsters, communism under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (until recently), and its ensuing isolation from Western Europe, the United States, and even China and Russia, not to mention King Zog (though I always thought he was a fictional children’s character – turns out he was real). Sounds like the perfect holiday.

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old Communist bunker

According to wikitravel, “Albanians enjoy long walks in the city streets, drinking coffee and, among the younger generations, participating in nightlife activities such as cafe lounging and dancing.” It’s not even known as a cycling destination – neither for locals nor for tourists – and yet it has everything that a cyclist looking for an interesting trip could possibly need: quiet roads, stunning locations, friendly locals, plenty of fresh spring water, a beautiful coastline, and some challenging mountains for the adventurous. Provided you don’t meet any gangsters, it’s ideal. We never saw any, though there were quite scary looking dogs (more on those later) and the odd sheep with a funny look in its eye.

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Sheep traffic jams are quite common

Albania also has an excellent basic infrastructure, despite its problems. You may not find many 5-star hotels offering champagne and hot tubs (shame, as they’d have been quite welcome after a hard day’s cycling) but basic guesthouses to rest for the night and small cafes to recharge the caffeine and energy levels along the route were plentiful. The food (and coffee) itself is also excellent and abundant, which surprised me so much that I wrote a separate blog post about it. The local (and only) cycling tour company, Cycle Albania, apparently used to run all kinds of different trips including kayaking, trekking and rafting, but found the cycling tours so successful that they decided to specialise, and rightly so. They have honed their tour to perfection over the last few years, and the smooth logistical operation is apparent. I can only see its popularity increasing as more people discover what Albania has to offer (although I should really have kept that quiet, since the beauty is essentially in the isolation).

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Our route (anticlockwise from Tirana)

The company offers only one route currently, but tailored in difficulty to its various clientele (the Germans, apparently, like to drink a lot and cycle a little; the Norwegians are the kings of the mountains and take on all the hardcore challenges thrown at them; while the British seem to fall somewhere between the two). The Exodus trip I took is classified as grade 4 (moderate to challenging), with a mix of two fairly tough days sandwiched in the middle with several much easier days. With a support van for those who have run out of steam (or are more closely affiliated with the Germans than the Norwegians), the British clientele appears a mixture of those with a decent level of experience and fitness looking for a bit of a challenge, to those who just want a more adventurous kind of holiday and see the option of resting in the van on the hard bits as a natural built-in element of the holiday principle rather than as an option only to be taken after being scraped off the tarmac in a heap of burnt-out muscle or broken limbs. It also, of course, enables friends and couples of different abilities or fitness levels to go on the same trip without either having to compromise.

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Cycling up the 1000m Llogara Pass is not for the faint-hearted

As long as you don’t mind the odd traffic jam caused by a flock of sheep in the road, or the threat of being chased and bitten by recalcitrant sheepdogs, you’ll get on fine. We once waited 10 minutes for reinforcements when a vicious hound stood in the middle of the highway blocking our path and barking at us. My companion had already been chased by one the previous day and was taking no chances on this one, but it showed no signs of moving, and we wondered what to do as we had been warned in no uncertain terms never to try to outcycle a dog (not that the dog was cycling, but you know what I mean). On the other hand, we’d also been told that if we stayed still, the dog would go away and leave us alone, but that didn’t happen either. Luckily our gallant hero Des arrived on his trusty 30-speed metal steed and bravely led the charge, at which point the dog decided it had better things to do and that it was no match for the two-wheeled Irishman. It beat a hasty retreat, allowing rite of passage to the two damsels in distress.

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Our unlikely hero of the hour

Anyway, back to Albania. Besides the culinary delights, it has a whole lot more to offer, even if its infrastructure as a luxury holiday destination is a little incomplete. “Come to Albania with an open mind”, advised our guide Junid. Although it was a little late, since he only offered these words of wisdom on our last day. But indeed, as long as you’re prepared to tolerate the odd cold shower, electricity failure (causing me an interesting time in the completely dark restaurant toilets), some dubious plumbing and construction (I thought Albanians were meant to be good at these, but maybe I’m getting confused with the Poles), and the relics of communism lingering, you’ll get on just fine. As a side note, it turns out you might even be able to spend the night in a former Communist bunker these days, though I’m not sure how the quality compares to that of our guesthouses. On our last night, we found ourselves in a comparatively luxurious hotel in Vlore, and I joyfully announced to my room mate that the shower looked like the best one we would have all week: a gleaming cubicle big enough to party in, with shiny glass doors, piping hot water and a showerhead you didn’t even have to hold in your hand. A contrast to the shower we’d had a few days earlier that was not only cold but would have struggled to get a mouse wet – even “dribble” was an exaggeration. Coming out of this superb looking shower, my room mate proudly announced “You won’t be disappointed.” I grinned, before she continued: “Yes, just like all the others, it leaks all over the bathroom floor.” We both dissolved in fits of giggles.

And finally, I turn to that other British obsession, the weather. My trip was over the Easter holiday in mid-April, and we experienced a very typical European weather pattern ranging from brilliant sunshine (and resulting in the ubiquitous comedy cycling tan lines) to freezing rain, high winds and near hypothermia on a couple of occasions. Sometimes all in the same day. We soon learnt to pack suncream, thermals and waterproofs in our panniers in order to deal with all eventualities. A friend had advised me: “pack for the Lake District and you’ll be fine”, and he was spot on. I cannot emphasise enough the usefulness of a pair of cycling “arms” and “legs” that could be removed and stowed in a back pocket or quickly thrown on as necessary, not to mention a waterproof always to hand, and plenty of zips to let air in or keep it out as the terrain demanded. Unless in full summer, when temperatures can get pretty hot, I would recommend packing plenty of layers (whether cycling or not), just like in the UK, and a warm jacket for the chilly evenings (sometimes also needed indoors, depending on the state of the heating in the hotel).

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In summary, a cycling holiday in Albania is far from a relaxing and sunny vacation on the beach (how boring that would have been!), but it provides everything one could possibly wish for in an interesting, challenging and remote experience where one is happy to get away from it all and step back in time. The added benefit is that you won’t spend much money as food and wine are cheap, shops rare, and there’s nothing to buy anyway. Still, you can’t put a price on adventure.

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Too much snorer in Albania

Hands up who knew that you can get really great coffee in Albania? After my experiences of awful coffee in most of the Balkan countries, I was perhaps more surprised by that than anything else on my recent trip there. When I told my friends I was going on a cycling holiday in the mountains of Albania, they knew me well enough not to be alarmed, or even particularly surprised, since I typically travel to unusual destinations on my holidays. Instead, the first question that most of them asked was what the food would be like. Like them, I knew next to nothing about Albania at all, let alone its culinary delights (or otherwise). To be honest, while I enjoy good food, it’s the last thing on my mind when I book a trip to a new place, since I’ll pretty much eat anything, including all the weird and wonderful local delicacies.

Once in Albania, I wished I’d done a bit more research first, simply because learning about the food made me understand much more about the geographical, historical and cultural underpinnings of the country. In my mind, I’d lumped Albania happily along with the rest of the Balkan countries, imagining the food, language and countryside all to be very similar, but as with the language, while you can see many different elements of other Balkan countries in there, it takes its roots more from its Italian and Greek neighbours than I was expecting. Both food and language are a melting pot of all sorts of things and yet resembling none of them.

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A standard meal on our trip

On the culinary side, I’d expected a fairly simple and bland but high quality selection of local meat, potato and vegetables based on the country’s communist roots, but it’s very far from this. On the coast, an abundance of fresh fish, simply baked with salt and lemon; further inland, an emphasis on vegetables and salads, with the meat element focusing largely on young animals such as veal, suckling pig and baby goat.

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Freshly caught trout at a working farm in Germenj

Spinach pie was ubiquitous, but totally different everywhere, reflecting regional influences ranging from the middle Eastern style burek to the Greek spanakopita. One of our favourite dishes in Gjirokastra was the traditional qifqi, which looked and tasted like a savoury scone, but was largely composed of rice, egg and mint.

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qifqi

The highlight for many of us were the desserts (much needed after long days of cycling up hills). In Gjirokastra we discovered the wonderful Albanian delight qumeshtore (or “milk pie”), which quickly became known as “too much snorer” due to our inability to speak Albanian. On enquiring about seconds and finding there were only 2 pieces left in the kitchen, there was almost blood shed in the ensuing battle (a real life bun-fight!).

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Stock picture, since our own qumeshtore was not left on the plate long enough to photograph

On the liquid side, I was also astonished by the quality of the local wine. In most cases, it was surprisingly good, especially since we’d been warned that wine is not really a big thing in Albania, and at only 200 lek (just over £1) for a huge glass, it would have been very easy to drink a lot of it if we hadn’t been up early to cycle up hills.

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Enjoying a large glass of wine while watching our trout being caught for dinner

My previous experience of coffee in the Balkan regions has generally ranged from the dire (at best) to something undrinkable akin to mud mixed with antiseptic in Montenegro and Slovenia, so my expectations of getting a decent caffeine hit to start the day were pretty low, but what we came across was more akin to its Italian cousin, and made for an exceptional start to the day as well as at the much needed mid-morning coffee stops.

According to our guide, some people have been known to come back on the same cycling tour not so much for the cycling or the scenery, but simply the food, and I don’t blame them. I’d definitely go back for it too. Albania is my new found serendipitous culinary delight.

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Sugar rush

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Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 5: The Finish Line!

The final day was rather a strange one by all accounts. With only a measly 10K to go, we had an easy bimble in store, and we were greeted from dawn with brilliant sunshine. It was still very chilly first thing, however, and I needed all my layers including my down jacket just to cook breakfast. However, being able to cook and eat breakfast outside rather than lying in bed hiding from the rain was an opportunity not to be missed.

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Morning view from my tent

We strolled gently in the morning sunshine, surrounded by the stunning scenery of the Abisko National Park, and thought of hot showers, comfortable beds and cold beers. While there was every reason to be cheerful, a small part of me also felt the final stretch to be a bit of an anticlimax. After all, this was supposed to be a tough trek in the Arctic Circle, designed to test our every sinew, and yet here we were strolling to the finish in glorious sunshine with not a care in the world (well, apart from the intense pain in my feet, dulled only marginally by a combination of ibuprofen and paracetamol swallowed religiously at 4-hourly intervals). Actually, I’d become so used to the pain by now that it barely registered. It might sound weird, but a part of me wanted to finish the trek after a really long tough day to make it feel like more of an accomplishment. I felt as if I were somehow cheating.

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Lee enjoying the sunshine and stunning scenery

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Just 500m to go!

However, as we approached the finish line, we were greeted with cheering and clapping from the trekkers who had already finished and were sitting drinking beer in the sunshine. The organisers presented us with our medals, and I felt a moment of pride at what we’d achieved, despite the easy finish. Looking back now, I have to keep reminding myself that it was by no means an easy challenge. I had only to look at my feet for the next few weeks to remind me (6 black toenails, one of which fell off when I took off my sock, and 3 more of which I had to remove a few days later, plus a number of blisters). I’m sure you’ll be glad that I’m sparing you the photos of that.

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Being presented with our medals at the finish

So what now? My next big trip needs to be more challenging in some respect, because otherwise I wouldn’t be pushing myself ever out of my comfort zone, but I’d happily do the Fjallraven Classic another time. The only problem is, there are so many new places to discover.

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Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 4: Pancakes!

Since there was a medic available at the checkpoint, and for once we were camping nearby, I decided this morning to get my feet checked out, as they were pretty painful (a couple of black toenails falling off, and a number of blisters on the soles of my feet). I was surprised to be awarded only a 2/10 for foot damage. Given how much they hurt, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much pain some people must have been in. I felt a bit of a heel (ha!) for making a fuss, but the medic put large amounts of tape on my feet, which was the main reason for me going to see her, and I felt reassured that nothing was going to fall off in the next few days. Today I thought a lot about injuries, having heard more stories from the medic about various people who’d already been airlifted out due to heart problems, broken bones, foot problems and all sorts. It struck me that maybe this actually was quite a tough challenge after all. On an exertion scale, I hadn’t found it too bad so far, although that’s not to say I hadn’t suffered an awful lot of pain with my shoulders and feet, and the conditions had made it far from a simple stroll, as you had to concentrate every inch of the way.

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Some of the bridges demanded careful attention, although at least there are no crocodiles in the Arctic.

Around midday, the rain started again, and although it was never particularly heavy, it was that persistent heavy drizzle that just seems to go on forever and leaves you wet before you really know it. It coincided with a long stretch of boring open moorland perpetuated by bogs, and it felt relentless. It was also cold, and my windproof gloves were soon sodden and about as much use as wearing a teabag on my hands. I’d been looking forward to stopping for lunch at some point along the way, but with the cold and rain there was nothing for it but to push on until Checkpoint Kieron. At one point, a Fjallraven representative (who was also trekking the route) appeared out of the mist and offered us a boiled sweet. Amazing the things that lift your spirit temporarily. The last 3K seemed interminable, and I was getting hungrier and more exhausted by the minute, but eventually the sky ahead started to look a  little brighter, and in my slightly delirious state I chanted to myself “Head for the light! Head for the light!” in an attempt to rally my spirits. It worked, and I soon started giggling to myself, feeling as if I were in a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, it was still a good hour before the rain finally eased and we found the light, so to speak.

We eventually crossed a metal bridge, and thankfully we could see the camp up ahead. But first a wooden hut appeared, comprising a much-needed loo. It was one of the finer varieties of long drop en route, with proper windows and no smell, even if lacking a loo roll and handwashing facilities (both of which I had with me, so no problem). I sat there for quite some time, just enjoying the view of the river through the trees, and the fact that I was finally warm, out of the wind, and sitting down in comfort. It took quite a lot of willpower to actually get up and put my soggy pack on again for the final 100 yards up the hill to the checkpoint.

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And what a surprise awaited us at Kieron! A lady cooking pancakes, another brewing coffee, and an open fire around which weary wet travellers were huddled. The pancakes (4 enormous ones each!!) were laden with jam and whipped cream, and having had no lunch and it being mid-afternoon, I devoured them eagerly. Never has a pancake tasted so good, or felt more well deserved. Halfway through eating the pancakes, I suddenly remembered that I’d used the collapsible bowl I was eating them out of to pee in the previous night, having not wanted to venture out of the tent in torrential rain, and I tried to remember if I’d actually washed it out that morning. To be honest, I was past caring anyway at this point, as the pancakes tasted so good.

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Never have pancakes felt more deserved!

Still feeling cold despite the hot food and coffee, I put on my down jacket under my waterproof (it was still drizzling a little) and went over to the fire to warm up. There I was offered a slug of dubious Hungarian firewater from a stranger’s hip flask, and soon got chatting to a bunch of Belgian men about beards. Right back in that Monty Python sketch again. The day was so surreal that it barely surprised me when, after discussing the relative benefits of facial hair to keep one’s chin warm vs. the extra weight of the hair slowing one down (every gramme counts when trekking!), a Dutchman reached into his backpack, took out an electric shaver, and proceeded to remove his inch-long stubble standing over the fire. I’m not sure whether this was a direct result of me having mentioned that I only considered men with less than half an inch of facial hair as potential life partners, or worry about beard weight. Either way, I never saw him again.

All too soon, it was time to get going, and we pushed on for another couple of hours until we found a suitable campsite by the lake.  For the first time during the trek, we actually arrived with enough time to relax a little after putting up the tents and cooking dinner. We could potentially have gone all the way to the finish that day, but one of our group had an injured knee, and in any case, there would have been nothing to do but hang around for an extra day once we got there. A couple of hardy souls went for a swim in the lake, more I think to prove their manliness than out of enjoyment, judging by the temperature of the water. This turned out to be rather foolhardy, as they then spent the next few hours shivering. Needless to say, I felt no need to prove my manliness, and every need to preserve my core body temperature. The remains of the rum (mine) and whisky (not mine) came out, and were duly finished, as this was our last night camping on the trek. With a beautiful dry evening (for once), we only retreated to our tents when it started getting too chilly and the alcohol had run out around 11pm.

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Idyllic camp by the river

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