Tag Archives: mountains

Postcard from Conca del Pra: enjoying the foothills of the Alps

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Went hiking with some friends and their kids yesterday in the foothills of the Alps. It was a sunny day and it was hot work following a narrow valley up, until we came over the ridge and found ourselves in the open space of Conca del Pra, a basin surrounded by jagged hills. On our walk we saw waterfalls, and wild roses, and cows, and raspberry patches, and flowers growing from the rocks that were reminiscent of hattifatteners, and entrances to mysterious caves where the air was cool and underground streams emerged. Our 4-year-old guide would probably want to add that we saw plenty of cool rocks and sticks and also he found an old shoe lace.

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Practical information for future reference: We parked at Villanova, which is near Bobbio Pellice, which is a bit past Pinerolo as you head into the Alps in that direction from Turin. It was a popular spot — the tables at Rifugio Willy Jervis in Conca del Pra were full of people having lunch — which is not surprising considering it’s a beautiful place only 50 km from central Turin. There are 2 trails from Villanova to Conca del Pra, one that is a dirt road with a few shortcuts to save on tedious switchbacks, and the other that follows the other side of the stream and is much steeper and rockier (but definitely rewarding). We took the gentler route up and the steep route down, my knees today feel like that was maybe not the best order to do things… It’s also possible to drive up to Conca del Pra and use that as a starting point for hikes further into the hills.

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Postcard from vallée Étroite: How is this even possible.

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Earlier this week, a friend sent out a group message that she and her family were going on a hike on Saturday, anyone was welcome to join them, adding “it’s one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever seen”.

She wasn’t wrong.

“How is this even possible?” we asked ourselves, repeatedly, as we walked through alpine meadows with walls of dramatic jagged rock formations above us and a clear cold mountain stream running next to us. We saw a herd of cows, an enchanted lake with a million shades of green algae growing on the bottom, half a dozen marmots, a pond with tadpoles, wildflowers in pink and yellow and purple and orange, and new views opening out to us every time we climbed a hill.

At one of our many pauses for photos, I asked one of the guys if he wanted a photo “with that stuff over there.”

“Stuff?” he laughed.

“I’ve run out of words.”

 

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Practical information for future reference: vallée Étroite (valle Stretta in Italian) is just over the French-Italian border from Bardonecchia. We drove from Turin, which takes 1.5-2 hours on the highway; parking near our start point of Rifugio i Re Magi (website in Italian) was 2 euro for the day. We walked from 1780m  above sea level at Rifugio i Re Magi to 2500m above sea level at Refuge du Thabor (website in French), a distance of about 7km each way on well-marked trails — just make sure you follow the signs to Refuge du Thabor and not Mont Thabor itself. You can buy lunch at Refuge du Thabor or even sleep the night. I was glad of my waterproof shoes for the stream crossings but everyone else got on fine in running shoes.

 

Postcard from Monte Galero

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Went on another hike this weekend, this time in Tanaro Valley near the border between Piedmont and Liguria. A hot morning, followed by an afternoon of dramatic skies, rain showers, and thunderclaps in the distance (disconcerting when you’re on the top of a hill!), followed by an evening on the Mediterranean coast eating takeaway pizza while standing around a concrete block used as a makeshift table. In between all of this we also read the gospel of Matthew start-to-finish — I’ve been going to church all my life but somehow the Bible becomes new and unfamiliar when you read it in long sections while sitting on a picnic blanket in a beech forest rather than a paragraph at a time in a church service. Highly recommended.

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Postcard from Valle Varaita

I’ve come down with a rather tedious and inconvenient head cold, so no writing from me this week — I started trying to write this post and got bogged down in Uggggh what even are words. But enjoy some photos from a day spent in Valle Varaita recently with friends from church.

(Not to make you jealous or anything, but it was basically a perfect summer’s day.)

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Velika Planina: a highlight of Slovenia

I’m back in Torino “summer” (I think there have been about 6 sunny days so far this year) so it’s time to relive some more vacation highlights.

“It’s good working here over summer, there’s plenty of tourists who I can practise English with,” said the barista at the cafe in Kamnik. I had to smile — I was just thinking how few other tourists I’d seen so far on my way out of Ljubljana and up to the mountains. I was heading for the ski lift at Velika Planina, which, according to a friend of a friend was a good spot to visit alpine meadows. The barista agreed. “It’s a really pretty place,” she said. “Great for hiking.”

“Really pretty” is an understatement. This was one of the highlights of my trip:

View at Velika Planina

Not bad eh?

Conveniently for lazy people like me, there’s a ski lift that they keep running in summer, so you can get to views like this without having to hike up yourself. (My totally legit excuses: it was already nearly lunchtime by the time I got to the bottom of the valley thanks to the not-great public transport schedule out of Ljubljana; it was a hot day and the sun was out in full force; I had already hiked strolled on flat ground the 2 days before; if the family with small children who arrived at the same time as me could get the lift, so could I.)

Once you get off the lift, there’s an easy walk of about 40 minutes to get to the traditional cow-herds huts:

Huts at Velika PlaninaApparently these are mostly (all?) reconstructions after a fire in the mid-20th century, but it took quite an effort to get them reconstructed as huts and not a state dairy farming collective. I think everyone’s pretty glad the effort was made — can you imagine a tourist campaign to come see the drab communist buildings on top of the mountain?

As I got closer to the village, the sound of cowbells, which had been faint near the ski lift, got louder and more constant. Although, as far as I can tell, many of the huts are now holiday homes, people still keep cows up in the meadows. They’re pretty chilled out cows, especially considering they have to share their space with hikers.

Cows at Velika Planina

mooooo!

I had brought some lunch but it turns out I didn’t need it, since you could buy delicious mountain food from one of the huts. Trust me, you will never feel more like Heidi than when you’re eating this, though I don’t think Heidi ate from an Ikea bowl…

Mountain lunch at Velika Planina

Left: sour milk, which is a bit like yoghurt. Right: meat and grits.

It was super tasty, and very filling. Almost enough to make me feel guilty about not hiking up from the valley. (No, not really.)

After lunch, I wandered around for a few hours, oohing and ahhing at the views of the mountains in one direction, and the plains in the other. I think I said to myself “this is so perfect!” about 75 times that day. I did consider hiking down just to work off the lunch, but in the end I took the lift, to make it pretty much the ultimate low-energy but still-satisfying walking day. Definitely recommended.

Practicalities for future reference: You can do this as a day trip by bus although car would be much more convenient. Different people said different things to me about how frequently the lift goes up — every half hour? every hour? At any rate, it runs until 6pm during the week and later on weekends. There’s a campsite at the bottom of the ski lift if you want to overnight. It also has ‘glamping huts’, which are more or less wooden garden sheds with beds (which I stayed in and liked just as much as any dorm room; if you want one in high season you should probably call and book — I got lucky there was 1 free when I rocked up).

Lake Bohinj: better than Bled?

Woke up early this morning and have 4 hours until my bus leaves, so I guess it’s time I sat down at the hostel shared computer and wrote about Lake Bohinj. (Excuse any crazy typos, it’s a croatian keyboard…)

My second day in Bled started with a lazy morning in the hostel, drinking nescafe (it was free, don’t judge me) and chatting and playing Jenga with an Irish guy and an aussie girl who had never played Jenga before and a dutch couple who insisted the rules were you could only use one hand in a turn, you couldn’t alternate right and left to ease a block out. There was talk of hiring bikes and going to some waterfalls, once everyone had gotten up and dressed and we’d found out where these waterfalls actually were.

Around eleven we’d worked out the plan — it turns out the ‘waterfalls’ were actually Vintgar Gorge, which I’d been to the day before, and liked, but not enough to go there a second time. So with that we went our separate ways, the group off to Vintgar and me down to the bus station to see where I could get to easily in the area.

As it happens, there was a bus fairly soon to Lake Bohinj, which was about half an hour away. I’d heard of it before as ‘the other lake in Slovenia; some people say it’s nicer than Bled’. Time to test that theory then.

‘Some people’ are right.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Perfect mountain lake.

Where Bled is quite built up, with its resorts and a substantial town on its shores, Bohinj is more of a large mountain lake that you could imagine hiking to and camping by. It was an overcast day when I was there, and everything was in shades of grey and green and blue, save the odd bright orange canoe and a white streak of a reflected church tower. Though it was hardly deserted, none of the crowds of Bled were there, and none of the bars and the boat hires every few hundred metres along the shore. Just mountains, trees, and a lot of water.

Lake Bohinj

Little beach with a tree.

I guess the reason Bled is more popular is that its water is much warmer – I took a quick dip in Bohinj before lunch, and a quick dip was plenty for me. It’s definitely more of a lake to walk around, or paddle on. I walked all the way around, with frequent stops to admire the views.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Dramatic clouds and still lake.

So yes, count me as one of the ‘some people’ who prefer Bohinj to Bled.

Ten things you should know about hiking

A post about something recent! Some friends and I went hiking last weekend.

  1. Everything feels like more of an adventure if you get up early for it. Even if you’re only up early because you woke up an hour before your alarm, and you decided to get out of bed and clean your apartment.
  2. If your plans involve Italian trains running on time, they will be delayed, pushing everything back until your hike is an after-lunch hike.
  3. Which isn’t a problem, because a picnic lunch in a village in the Alps is pretty great in its own right. Especially with fresh bread and cheese and sausage and fruit.
  4. It turns out the haze you always thought was air pollution must be partly just humidity, because even in this valley, it’s there. You won’t get the crystal-clear mountain air you’d been daydreaming of during the week, but the haze does make the landscape rather painterly.
  5. When the trail mostly follows the road, you can go fast, even when the clouds come in and visibility is low. This will seem like a good idea at the time. Your stiff muscles and awkward-baby-giraffe gait 3 days after the hike will disagree.
  6. Cows and calves are almost as cute as sheep and lambs; cowbells are useful for warning you there are cows on the road when walking through clouds; it is impossible to resist mooing loudly as you pass a herd of cows, even if you’ve passed 4 already.
  7. A woman with grey hair and wellies will pass you as you pause for a drink, and wish you a pleasant hike. One minute later, she will be nowhere to be seen on the road, even though there are no side paths. Probably she is a farmer and has gone into a field. Maybe she is a witch.
  8. In the end, even going fast, you won’t reach the lake the signposts were vague about the location of. You will however witness the clouds lifting and the sun coming out over a meadow of wildflowers, complete with a mountain stream and views to higher hills beyond.
  9. Nettles are real, and they do look just like on the box of nettle tea you used to drink in Australia. You’re only going to realize this after you walk through a patch of them.
  10. Homemade fruit cake you weren’t convinced about while in the city will taste amazing when you’ve just walked from 1400 to 2000 metres above sea level. (You need to go hiking again – you’ve got nearly a quarter of the fruitcake still in your fridge.)