West Highland Way Afterparty in Edinburgh

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To cool off after the epic hike, we spent one more weekend in the rainy and gloomy Edinburgh. The only items on our agenda were wandering the cobbled streets and visiting a couple of obligatory sights before returning home. I’m sure there are countless Edinburgh guides that are bigger and better than this, so I think my main goal with this post is simply to dump some of our photos here for safekeeping. I do have a couple of recommendations for the best restaurant and the best tourist activity, though!

Obligatory Sight #1: Edinburgh CastleIMG_20190727_154129_01

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I don’t know if they’d even let you out of Edinburgh without having visited the famous castle on the hill. On a rainy morning, the ticket queue was not too bad, so we actually made it in and out in a reasonable amount of time. A special feature worth mentioning was the cemetery which was located in a spot with some of the best views and dedicated to soldiers’ dogs – our furry companions truly deserve nothing less than that. Nice castle, sure, but it has nothing on my beloved Turku Castle.

Click on the images to view larger versions

Obligatory Sight #2: Royal Botanic Garden EdinburghIMG_20190728_115148

The weekend-long drizzle turned into a downpour of biblical proportions as soon as we had walked over to the furthermost corner of the botanic garden. The umbrellas we had got for a tenner didn’t help much with the strong gusts of wind, so we just stood under a random tree until the rain subsided a little bit. Note to self: don’t pack sneakers for Edinburgh, they’ll just get squelchy in a second. Should have worn my hiking boots if I wanted to keep my socks dry. Worth a visit, these gardens, anyway!

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Obligatory Tourist Activity Tip: The Edinburgh Dungeon

The underground Edinburgh has been put to good use. The Edinburgh Dungeon will give full bang for your buck (or your £15): tourist groups are led through the underground maze, where they get a glimpse of Scotland’s darkest history with the gracious help of some foul-mouthed actors with an attitude. Such a hilarious tour! Not recommended for the most thin-skinned amongst us – Karens need not apply.

Restaurant Tip: MUMS Great Comfort FoodIMG_20190727_212839

While in Edinburgh, we ate a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but there was one restaurant that deserves a special mention: MUMS Great Comfort Food serves exactly what the name suggests, tasty comfort food which is excellent value for your money. We spotted the place by accident while strolling by, and on the early Saturday evening we needed to queue for about half an hour to get a table. I’m actually surprised we didn’t have to wait longer than that. We wined and dined well, and while our final check included ten items, the total only came up to sixty quid. The delicious munchies and the cozy retro decoration were great, but the true draw of the place is its amazingly friendly staff. The wait staff always had a twinkle in their eye and a smile on their face no matter how busy it got.

Unfortunately, the people seated in the table next to ours must have had escaped from some kind of a rehab centre for entitled arseholes or whatnot. I didn’t quite catch what exactly their problem with the food was, but even after the waitress had canceled the whole check for their entire group of six (!), these jerks kept berating her on their way out. That’s when we decided to pay our own check by card, gave all the paper money we had left as a tip and said it was for the excellent service. It wasn’t much, but it was meant as an encouraging gesture. The response we got still warms my heart: “I knew I was gonna cry tonight, but I didn’t expect them to be happy tears.” I may or may not have teared up, myself, as well.

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All in all, we truly had an excellent holiday in Scotland – I could even say it was perfect if only I had been able to keep my socks dry on the flooding streets of Edinburgh. But that was my own mistake.

West Highland Way, Part 4: Kingshouse–Kinlochleven–Fort William

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Day 7: Kingshouse–Kinlochleven

The second last morning of our hike dawned on us sunny and warm. Since we hadn’t slept all that well nor much, there was no question as to whether we should nibble at a piece of dry bread in our tent or enjoy a good breakfast in the pub, so the pub it was. We went for the full Scottish, which included a hefty plate of all kinds of artery-clogging goodness, as well as drinks. And also haggis. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d someday find myself having haggis for breakfast, but Chef and I both wolfed down our portions in no time at all. There’s definitely something magical about a hungry hiker’s bottomless belly.

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After breakfast, it was once again time to pack up camp and leave one of our backpacks behind for pick-up. Meanwhile, the hung over American louts had also managed to crawl up from their hidey holes, their bloodshot eyes squinting in the bright light of dawn. Everyone else was squinting, too, only not for the sunlight but to give the spring breakers the evil eye while passing them by on the way back to the trail. Not the friendliest audience for them that morning. Anyway, the most important thing was to get a decent head start on that shrieking group of brutes so our ears wouldn’t have to bleed again that day.IMG_20190725_115533

The day’s walk started out flat and easy but soon turned into another sweat-inducing climb. Fortunately, we were able to soak our swollen feet in cold streams on our breaks on the way up. Based on a quick glance at the guide book, I was aware that the notorious Devil’s Staircase was awaiting us that day, but we actually didn’t even realise we had climbed it until we were almost at the top, already. Much less painful than the name suggests – in good weather and with minimal gear to carry, at least.

IMG_20190725_122527_01Looks like the Devil’s Staircase is just a ladder to heaven in disguise

IMG_20190725_122811Feels good to be on top (of the world)
IMG_20190725_123330Feels even better to be walking downhill
IMG_20190725_124008Stepping stones for rainy days
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What goes up must come down, so after the staircase/ladder much of the way was a gentle descend to our next pit stop in Kinlochleven. According to our guide book, the old industrial town of Kinlochleven is nothing but an eyesore, a mere stain on the trail, “the ugliest on two thousand miles of Highland coast”. Not the most enticing description, for sure.

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However, once we made it to town, we couldn’t help but think that the description was quite unfair – I was expecting something much uglier. I mean, yeah, the first thing that greets you on your way to town is a bunch of nasty water pipes ruining the natural views, and sure, the houses originally built for the now-closed aluminium smelter workers are carbon copies of each other, but at least the village is tidy, well-kept and surrounded by mountains – and split up by a river just like my much beloved hometown of Turku. It felt cosy.

IMG_20190725_144038 An entire village’s worth of gnomes on one tiny yard

IMG_20190725_153722 MacDonald Hotel #barwithaview

In Kinlochleven, we stayed at the MacDonald Hotel Campsite, where they offered a nice and secluded grassy area for tents. We made it to the hotel about one and a half hours before our backpack arrived, which wasn’t a problem since we could wait in the hotel’s lovely bar with a view – I’m pretty sure I’ve seen something uglier, somewhere.

When the backpack arrived, we got to chat a bit with the Baggage Freedom owner Gregg. A lovely man in a kilt, there aren’t many things better than that. Gregg is a British army veteran who is now running his own company mostly by himself, although every now and then his mates help him out so he can have a day off. For once, I picked the right service provider. Strongly recommended!

IMG_20190725_153739Chef was in no hurry to get anywhere

After putting up our tent, we went for a quick swim behind the campsite where the River Leven meets Loch Leven. We couldn’t go further than a few metres from the shore, since the current seemed strong, but it felt amazing to soak in the chilly water after a full day of sweating it up under the scorching sun. We returned to our tent to find a new neighbour in a brave 19-year-old German girl, who was on her first solo hike far from home. I remember my first solo trip, which was well into my twenties and only for a weekend in Copenhagen. Hats off to you, lass! We did our grocery shopping and cooked dinner together with her.

At the end of the day, we went to the bar for a cold one, which turned into a few more until it was accidentally already closing time. We were chatting with two lovely Scottish cousins, and as we all know, time flies when you’re having fun. We had already seen the blokes a few times on the trail, but only started a conversation when they showed up at the same campsite. Our conversations covered all sorts of topics from Brexit to old viking rituals, but for me, the most memorable bit was realising that in Scotland, even these rugged and tattooed dudes use the word wee in their everyday speech when they mean something is little. A wee beastie, a wee holiday – too cute!

(The Final) Day 8: Kinlochleven–Fort William

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The last day, how did that happen so soon?! We slept in, perhaps a bit too late, and after a sluggish breakfast got back on the trail to yet again sweat our arses off in the heat of Scotland. Sounds ridiculous, but it was truly, seriously hot. The last leg wasn’t very challenging, but it sure was hilly. A few extra water bottles really came in handy.

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As we were approaching Fort William, we began to notice felling areas and other signs of human habitation. We also had to go through a few sheep enclosures – one of them was so muddy around the gate that I almost lost one of my shoes in there. However, it was really interesting to spot a sheep herder and his dog at work high up the mountainside. The dog appeared to take its orders in the form of different whistles and brief shouts and expertly herded the little balls of wool in good order down towards the closure. IMG_20190726_134352
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We had our last proper snack break in a wide open spot with the most fantastic, panoramic views on the entire hike that day. We even had a little bench there, and many of the passers-by were visibly jealous of our private lunch spot. Right as we were digging into our backpacks for the instant soup, a spandex-clad mountain biker stopped next to us, and we proceeded to have this very brief exchange with him:

Spandex Man: “Excuse me, do you know if that’s Ben Nevis right over there?”

Us: “Probably, but we’re not 100% sure.”

Spandex Man: “No matter, I’ll just take a pic and tell my mates it is!”

And it was, which we were able to confirm once I got my hands on the map. But hey, doesn’t matter as long as your mates believe it! Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to summit Ben Nevis this time around, as it would have required another full day which we simply didn’t have, but at least now we’ve got an excellent excuse to one day return to the Highlands.

IMG_20190726_143248Ben Nevis, we shall meet again

As is often the case with long hikes, the last miles were once again quite anticlimactic. After the breathtaking views of Ben Nevis and its surroundings, the rest of the hike was a seemingly never-ending log trail winding down towards Fort William which then turned to pavement and long lines of cars speeding by.

IMG_20190726_155452I think this picture is certificate enough for me

The original end of the West Highland Way is in the outskirts of Fort William, but they’ve later moved it downtown. I’m not even sure where, because we had zero interest to go chasing after another sign in the concrete jungle. Instead, we headed straight for the pub for some burgers and cokes. Gregg was already waiting for us at the station with our second backpack, and he would have driven us back to Glasgow for around 20 quid if we hadn’t already bought ourselves tickets for the Caledonian Sleeper train straight to Edinburgh.

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It didn’t seem like there is much else to do in Fort William besides bewaring of elderly people and giggling at teenagers sitting in circles and singing along to Ed Sheeran songs outside the supermarket. We walked around, fruitlessly, trying to find a place for wild swimming. Couldn’t find any, so we just went to the swimming hall. Their abomination of a sauna was but a lukewarm room without even the most primitive sauna stove, yet they had deemed it necessary to post a sign on the door warning people about the heat. Oh you poor, misguided souls. In any case, I (and probably everyone on the same train with us) surely appreciated the chance to wash my hair thoroughly before our train trip.

IMG_20190726_211019Caledonian Sleeper: views along the way

And what a train trip it was! Some of the best bits of the WHW through the windows. No sweat, no midges. The train did not depart on schedule, though, and my assigned seat just happened to be the only broken one. A friendly member of staff told me that “Mark” would take care of it as soon as he wasn’t too busy, just ask Mark. That’s nice, but was I supposed to know which one of the many men buzzing around the cars was Mark? Perhaps he’s some local railroad celebrity. I did eventually get a functional seat and the train caught up to schedule along the way, too. I wouldn’t mind taking that train trip again.

Such an amazing eight days on the trail! Assuming that tourism is one day again an option, I warmly recommend the West Highland Way to anyone interested in longer hikes.

P.S. Learn from my mistakes, pack decent rain gear.

P.P.S. Absolutely do take advantage of the baggage transfer services! For a modest fee, walking will be a bajillion times more enjoyable.

Prices (July 2019):

  • Kingshouse Hotel/Way Inn: breakfast £15 pp
  • MacDonald Campsite, Kinlochleven: £20 per night for two people in one tent
  • Caledonian Sleeper train ticket Fort William–Edinburgh: £15 pp (early bird online discount)

To read all posts on this trip in English, use the tag WHW19EN.

 

West Highland Way, Part 2: Drymen–Balmaha–Rowardennan–Inversnaid

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The further north we proceeded the better the views became, and the number of photos I snapped appears to have increased in direct correlation with the growing altitudes. Therefore the remaining posts are going to be quite picture-heavy, since culling the selection any further would take me forever.

Day 3: Drymen–Balmaha

The third dawn arrived cloudy but dry, and it was nice to get back on the trail after a refreshing shower at the Drymen campsite. Instead of waxing poetic about this day, here’s a bunch of photos to highlight the wonderfully varied landscapes along the way.

IMG_20190721_105112Through pasturesIMG_20190721_110221…to the light at the end of the bush tunnel…

IMG_20190721_111036…along overgrown paths…

IMG_20190721_114901 …onto wide open roads with panoramic views…

IMG_20190721_115745 …stopping for snacks and to smell the flowers…IMG_20190721_125509…onto hillier and hillier terrain…

IMG_20190721_140919_01     …until we finally got a taste of what we came here for!

IMG_20190721_140020 Conic Hill

The trail took us past Conic Hill and onto Balmaha. It was definitely worth it to ditch the backpacks for a while and climb to the top of the hill to fully take in these impressive views over Loch Lomond. Oh, and if you’re planning to do this, better hold onto your hat or the wind will claim it immediately. Up until this point, there had been no crowding on the trails, but the closer we got to Conic Hill the more day trippers we saw. No wonder, though, since the views are magnificent.

IMG_20190721_142155 View from Conic Hill over Loch Lomond

Down in Balmaha it started to drizzle again, so we thought we’d have a second lunch break at the Oakwood Inn. The restaurant seemed to be operating at full capacity, not even the rainy patio had any free tables left. Fortunately, a friendly Danish couple noticed our plight and asked us to join them at their table. We happily squeezed ourselves onto the narrow benches and somehow managed to all stay under the small sunbrella, mostly covered from the rain. What’s not to like: good food and great company! However, after lunch they continued in the opposite direction (crazy Danes embarking on a tiring ascend that late in the afternoon and in that weather – I was surprised to learn they eventually made it out alive). Chef and I, in turn, once again tried to hitchhike to our next campsite with no luck. At least we only had to walk a few more kilometres in the drizzle.

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Cashel Camping seemed quite alright for a one-night stay. Since the drizzle didn’t stop all night, we really weren’t feeling like swimming but opted for a warm shower, instead. While Chef was cooking dinner, I did a bit of laundry and for once my timing was perfect: the large campsite only seemed to have one working tumble dryer for all its guests, and while our clothes were drying, a frustrated queue started to form in front of the machine. Sorry about that, guys, better come earlier next time.

Note: After Drymen, the trail winds through the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park for a good bit, and there are camping restrictions in many places along the way. For example, you often need to pay for a permit or book in advance if you’d like to pitch your tent on the shores of Loch Lomond, and in some places wild camping is completely banned. This is something to take into consideration when planning your hike. We had no problems with showing up at campsites without a booking, there was always enough space for one more tent.

 IMG_20190722_105851Got a little chuckle out of these haggis “facts”

Day 4: Balmaha–Rowardennan–Inversnaid

On the fourth morning, we opted for a lazy breakfast and bought readymade sandwiches and hot drinks at the campsite shop. We had noticed ads for a bag-carrying service at all stops along the way, and even that started to seem tempting. Our guidebook had mentioned the possibility, but at the time the mere thought had seemed absurd – can you even claim to be a hiker if someone else lugs your stuff from point A to point B in a van and you’re just skipping along with a daypack? Spoiled brats’ shenanigans, psht.

But then, it was dawning on us that the walk would be so much faster and more enjoyable if we didn’t need to drag all of our earthly possessions on our backs, so we asked the reception clerk if he could try to book the service for us for the same day. However, at ten in the morning we were too late, as the driver had already passed by the campsite. Then we tried to book it for the next day, but soon learned that none of these services apply to Inversnaid, which was our next destination. Apparently, Inversnaid is easy to reach on foot but by car the detour would take much too long to be worthwhile. Our only remaining option was to carry on carrying on like we had so far.

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Soon after leaving Cashel we walked past the Sallochy camping area, which would have been even nicer for spending the night. They have numbered spots for tents along the shore, but between March and September those must be booked in advance. Balmaha Visitor Centre or the website for the national park should be able to help with the details. I think I recall the price being £7 per person per night.

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Once again, the weather was cloudy but fortunately not very rainy. The trail was lovely: it followed the shoreline of Loch Lomond, we got to dip our toes in the water on breaks and there were waterfalls and other interesting bits along the way. Somewhere around the halfway mark, we spotted Rowardennan Hotel and its restaurant lured us in for lunch. Even though there were brief moments of drizzle, it was really nice to be seated outside on the patio overlooking the loch while sipping a cold one.

IMG_20190722_130647Rowardennan Hotel
IMG_20190722_132025Lunchtime views from the patio. Kayaks for rent, too, if you’re into that.

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If only all hikers and campers, be it in Scotland, Finland or anywhere else, took it upon themselves to abide by this simple guideline. The most pea-brained of us could even go for a nice arm tattoo reminder, if picking up after oneself is too challenging otherwise.

Let no one say, and say it to your shame, that all was beauty here until you came.

IMG_20190722_163209A piece of history covered with moss

IMG_20190722_180655Inversnaid Falls

The best moment of the rest of the day was when the forest trail suddenly ended and the Inversnaid Falls were roaring in front of us. You can’t tell the scale from my pictures, but the main waterfall was truly massive and very impressive! Right next to the falls, there’s the old-school Inversnaid Hotel, which mainly appears to target the elderly. Or at least a tour bus dropped off a bunch of them at the doorstep while were passing by. Later in the evening, after pitching our tent, we also visited the downstairs restaurant for a pint, and there were only a handful of pensioners and a mediocre live band. It kind of reminded me of the weekday ferries between Finland and Sweden. Nothing wrong with that.

IMG_20190722_181931Inversnaid Hotel: Riff-Raff Wing

Even if your budget won’t allow you to get a room at the hotel, it has a lot to offer to campers. First, you can fill up your water bottles for free from the tap outside the hotel. Secondly, campers are allowed to use the toilets when the hotel is open. Thirdly, the hotel has a dedicated space for muddy and ruddy hikers. You must take your dirty boots off at the separate entrance and don’t expect any table service, ether. Instead, you can sneak around in your socks and order food and drinks at the counter by the clean-people restaurant. This riff-raff space is very clean and stylish and, as a huge bonus, there are many sockets for charging your various gadgets.

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In addition to all the great things mentioned above, wild camping is free in the dedicated area, which is about a 5–10-minute walk from the hotel, and you get to wake up to excellent loch views. There’s also a nice little beach for swimming, or, in my case at least, for lightning-fast dipping just to rinse off some of the dust and sweat before crawling into a comfy sleeping bag. It wasn’t secluded, but it was quiet: there were only two or three tents in addition to ours that night. Quite a bargain, warmly recommended!

Prices (July 2019):

  • Oakwood Inn, Balmaha: cider+beer+shared pizza+chips&cheese+coffee+hot chocolate=£31
  • Cashel Camping: tent spot for two £13 per night, dryer £2, breakfast sandwiches and hot drinks for two £7
  • Rowardennan Hotel: lunch and drinks for two £22
  • Inversnaid Hotel: 2 pints £7

To read all posts on this trip in English, use the tag WHW19EN.

 

West Highland Way, Pt. I: Glasgow–Milngavie–Drymen

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Apparently, all it takes for me to update this blog is a brief year-long break and a tiny pandemic, but better at sloth pace than never. In a way, it’s nice to reminisce about the good old days when travelling was still a thing people did.

After last summer’s SlovinIt tour, it was time for a couple’s holiday. In late July, Chef and I started off towards Scotland. I had been dreaming of seeing the Scottish highlands ever since as a child I first read Don Rosa’s comics about Scrooge McDuck’s early years. Our main goal was to complete the legendary West Highland Way hike, which would add another 150km to our hiking meter.

Before the first day of walking, we spent the night in a shabby neighbourhood near the centre of Glasgow. We went budget first with picking the hotel, and apart from the cheap price, there aren’t many other positive things to say about it. The McLays Guest House was a run-down maze, and we also heard someone get stuck its claustrophobia-inducing lift. We managed to avoid falling victim to the lift trap, but my luck took a turn for the worse at the nearby Vietnamese, where I noticed the avocado in my meal a bit too late. Such a fresh start to our week-long hike when my good night’s sleep was replaced by hugging the porcelain throughout the night. Typical.

Day 1: Glasgow–Milngavie

The official starting point of the West Highland Way is in the town of Milngavie, a twenty-minute train ride from Glasgow. However, our guidebook recommended starting the hike from Glasgow for a softer start to the challenge ahead, so we did exactly that. It was a nice and leisurely way to begin our journey, watching the city slowly turn into countryside, strolling through a park and by a river in the sunshine, through fields and past cows on pastures.IMG_20190719_163213

We had almost made it to Milngavie when dark clouds started gathering above us and the first droplets fell on our forehead. That was our cue to take a little break at the highly recommended Tickled Trout pub for a cold pint and a plate of delicious fried food. We had been meaning to stay the night at a campsite in Milngavie that our guide book mentioned, but then Google revealed it no longer existed. Surprise! Someone smarter than us might have checked that in advance instead of in the pub late on the same day. We didn’t have any gas for our camping stove, either, because they had been sold out at the camping shop we visited back in Glasgow, and the shop in Milngavie would be closing early and there was no way we could have made it in time. The pub’s friendly staff then suggested we try the garden centre next door, and fortunately they had some in stock. Otherwise, no dinner and no fun since you’re not you when you’re hungry, right?

IMG_20190719_181936_01__01Stylish as ever

The light drizzle turned into downpour and showed no sign of stopping, so at some point we just had to get back on the road and wade through the puddles. Luckily, we had packed just the pro gear the situation called for: disposable two-euro rain ponchos. However, since our spirits weren’t too high, we first tried to hitchhike straight to Drymen. Surprisingly enough, nobody wanted to pick up two soaked backpackers. Once we made it on foot to the centre of Milngavie, we asked around if camping by the nearby park was allowed, but nobody knew the answer. We did know that wild camping is allowed along the hiking route, but at that point we were still in town. With our options limited, we decided to just go for it – besides, who was going to leave the comfort of their dry and warm home just to scold us for pitching our tent in the rain? We did, however, get scolded by a middle-aged couple who saw us walking out of the supermarket holding a plastic water bottle and thought we were idiots for paying for water when you could get free water from the blue taps downtown. A valid point, yes, but what if you not only need the water but also something to carry it in?

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Soon after the official starting point of the trail, we spotted a nice place for our tent, hidden behind the bushes, right next to a stream. On the other side of the stream was a golf course, but obviously there was nobody around in that weather. We took a quick dip in the refreshing water and retreated to our chambers to prepare some dinner and listen to the rain lashing against the tent fabric. As you can probably tell from the poor quality, the rain was not kind to my electronics and the picture above is one of the last I was able to take on my phone before its camera went kaput. I also forgot to take my separate compact camera out of my backpack and it got damp and broke down during the night. Oops. Next time, we might want to invest in some better rain gear (or at least upgrade the diposables from the two-euro ponchos to fancier five-euro jackets) and try not to use Google Maps in the rain quite as much, and our belongings might even survive the trip.

Day 2: Milngavie–Drymen

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The rain had stopped while we slept, and in the morning we woke up to another hiker’s excited dog running loose and sniffing around in our camp. We actually met a lot of doggos on the trail, which is always a nice bonus! Even though it was still cloudy, the weather conditions no longer seemed like a threat to the success of our hike. Most of the puddles had even dried up overnight.

IMG_20190720_131107Through the foggy lens – pretty easy to guess which pictures are taken with my phone and which ones with Chef’s

IMG_20190720_131750Savanna or Scotland?

IMG_20190720_134948Good stuff

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We had just had our lunch break before we ran into this sign advertising The Beech Tree, and tempting as it was, we didn’t feel like stopping again. However, this is a nice reminder that the West Highland Way is not by any means a traditional hike in the wilderness, instead it goes from one village to another. Pleasant gravel paths in great scenery make up most of the trail and there are only a few short sections where you need to walk on the side of the road. With a little advance planning, you probably wouldn’t even need to carry much camping gear or food if you went from inn to inn and ate in the many pubs along the way.

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We made it to Drymen late in the afternoon and left our things at the quaint Drymen Camping. The centre of Drymen is only a few kilometres from the campsite, so we decided to do a little evening stroll to visit a pub after dinner. Clachan Inn, the oldest licensed pub in Scotland, was so crowded that we didn’t even try to squeeze ourselves in but went straight next door to the Winnock Hotel pub for a pint and a little dessert. We also got the chance to top up our snack supply at a Spar before rolling back to the campsite.

 IMG_20190720_211822Drymen

Prices (July 2019):

  • The Tickled Trout: 2 x pint, 2 x onion rings, 1 x squid = £19
  • Gas for camping stove: £9
  • Winnock Hotel: 2 x pint, 2 x dessert = £17
  • Drymen Camping: £7/person/night

To read all posts on this trip in English, use the tag WHW19EN.

SlovinIt19: Venice and Lido

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The final stop of our grand SlovinIt tour was Venice, mainly for the good connections. Based on my presumptions and everyone complaining about how stinky and crowded the s(t)inking city of canals is, I honestly wasn’t too excited about going there. It just seemed like a destination everyone needs to suffer through once in a lifetime.

Locanda SilvaLocanda Silva:  hotel room with canal view, roof terrace view and common space

The journey between the bus station and our hotel only served to reinforce my prejudice: the profuse sweating from the heat and suffering, the cruise ship crowds steamrolling through the streets, the Google Maps walking instructions leading us to a cul-de-sac… Ugh. There were several bridges along the way without ramps, so we had to carry our heavy luggage up and down the stairs while trying to find another way to the hotel. I had already had enough by the time we finally made it to Locanda Silva, where we would be staying for the weekend. Fortunately, the hotel was very nice and clean, the staff were friendly and even the included breakfast was surprisingly good. The location also turned out to be great once we got the hang of the giant labyrinth formed by the narrow, criss-crossing streets. From there on, our general mood started to improve again.

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After a nice shower, we were refreshed enough to go out and brave the street labyrinth again, this time with a better attitude. In the historical centre of Venice, the main modes of transport are by foot and boat, as there are no cars or streets where a car would even fit. The streets are narrow and crowded. Even the canals are crowded with all the gondoliers in their striped shirts touring tourists around, all the while happily aiding them in making their wallet lighter.

IMG_20190629_170236Piazza San MarcoIMG_20190629_170649Basilica di San Marco

We had no plan for our first walking tour and were just wandering around aimlessly. All of a sudden, the shaded street opened up to St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), and in that moment I finally understood the draw of Venice. Seeing Saint Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) with my own eyes was so impressive that the cliché of going breathless was not far from the truth. It felt like time stopped and any words dried up in my mouth. The longer you stare at all the magnificent buildings at the square, the more dumbfounding details you find. Pictures really don’t do justice to this church or the square, they must be experienced live to really see the grandeur. And that’s how you get millions upon millions of tourists flocking in, for a very good reason. If they wanted to be left alone there, they should have built something uglier!

pulutGo on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Venice. Take pictures of pigeons.

IMG_20190630_133253No Mafia, Venezia è Sacra (No Mafia, Venice is Sacred)

“Love and a cough are something you cannot hide” –Unknown graffiti artist

IMG_20190629_173150Costa Luminosa: just a few extra tourists arriving to block the streets

Surprisingly enough, we got used to to the crowds quite fast and the herds didn’t bother us after the initial shock anymore. Apart from patience, the most important thing is to pack good shoes and be prepared to wear them out. A budget traveller should also be aware that even the shortest gondola rides cost close to a hundred euros. The good news is that there is a much more affordable way to see many of the sights from water – just take a vaporetto water bus! Actv sells single tickets as well as unlimited use tickets for 1 to 7 days, of which it makes sense to pick the latter according to the length of your own holiday. The vaporettos not only take you from one station to another along the main canal, but they also run between the centre and the nearby islands. Some do a circle route, so they can also be used as a mini cruise, especially if you luck out and manage to get a seat outside on the deck.

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The Saint Mark Bell Tower (Campanile di San Marco) at St Mark’s Square, seen in the background in the picture above, is almost 100 metres high and supposedly offers the best views over the entire city. Understandably, visiting the tower is an extremely popular tourist activity with queues and entrance fees to match. To spare your nerves and save some money, consider taking a vaporetto to the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore instead, and visit the church (Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore) bell tower there. Tickets are a lot cheaper and there was no queue when we dropped by in the afternoon.

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Even though the San Giorgio Maggiore bell tower isn’t quite as high as St Mark’s, you can still spy lots of interesting stuff from the heights. My favourite find was the exquisite maze behind the church. Sadly, they didn’t let any tourists in to lose their way and their life in the scorching sun, but it was still cool! I’ll get me one of those for sure, as soon as I can turn my balcony into a backyard.

Lido
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If the crowds of Venice start to stress you out, the vacation island of Lido is only a short vaporetto ride away. Crowded and narrow streets become but a faint memory as soon as you step foot on Lido – there are “normal” roads for cars and wide pavements there, and even regular buses and not only those of the water variety. Lido feels like a traditional resort with its lush flower plantings and shiny shopping streets. The atmosphere is sleepy and calm, even though you can still find a lot of people there.

IMG_20190630_180745Capanna beach huts for rent
IMG_20190630_172339The riff-raff bathes on a crowded slice of beach…IMG_20190630_173239…while money buys you some breathing spaceIMG_20190630_173117Pebble beach? Nope, just a couple of seashells!

Although our half-day beach visit was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the historical centre, I still think Lido is probably at its best as a playground for trust fund kids and their kind. There are some free beaches scattered around the island, but they’re also incredibly crowded, while the private beaches have more space than they know what to do with. An officious guard immediately drove us off from an open stretch of sand and back in with the rest of the riff-raff, but hardly bothered to hassle other similar rule-breakers. Redds and I probably didn’t manage to look difficult enough, so we became an easy target for bouncing around.

Venice by Night

The magic of Venice can be best seen late in the evening, when the cruise crowds have retreated back to their ships and the sun begins to set. One by one, lights are popping on at the restaurants lining the main canal and live orchestras begin to play at St Mark’s Square. The main sights are lighted in a way that brings out a whole new side to them.

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Normally, I’m not one to shop for souvenirs, but I had to make an exception in Venice. I’ve been collecting masks ever since I did an internship in Tanzania. In Venice, every tourist shop bursts with cheap, fake masks for a couple of euros, but there are still some traditional stores like Ca ‘Macana, where each mask is carefully crafted by hand. The selection is mind-boggling and ranges from the handsomely-beaked il dottore masks to imaginative steampunk versions and charming animal characters. It was almost painful to make a choice, but I ended up getting a fox mask with crooked eyes. I could imagine wearing it to a secret society meeting – now I just need to find that society. Honestly, I’d be happy to travel back to Venice just for the chance to shop for more masks!

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Prices (June-July 2019), Venice

  • Accommodation, Locanda Silva, room for two with a private bathroom and canal view, breakfast included: 100€/night + tourist tax of a couple of euros
  • Actv pass for 2 days: 30€

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

 

SlovinIt19: Beach Holiday in Caorle

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After the action-packed hiking week in Slovenia, we continued sweating our arses off in a different way as we moved on to take a quick breather on Italy’s side. There are several tempting beach holiday destinations in Northern Italy, and after thorough google research we ended up picking Caorle, which is located halfway between Trieste and Venice. We were looking for a relaxing atmosphere, nice beaches and a bit of personality, reachable by public transport, and Caorle fit the bill perfectly.

trainItalian air conditioning = fanning yourself with a train ticket

From Ljubljana, we first took a Flixbus to Trieste on the Italian side of the border and continued on to the Portogruaro-Caorle station by train. Finally from there, we caught a local bus to the centre of Caorle. The early morning Flixbus had a plenty of room left, and we only bought our tickets the day before our journey. The train wasn’t packed either and we were able to get our tickets on the day of the journey. Both the bus and the train ran pretty well on schedule, only the bus got stuck in traffic for a while as we were nearing Trieste. However, Trenitalia’s claim of aria condizionata was just a bad joke. This was the week when all of Europe was hit by a record-breaking heatwave, so our train trip was nothing short of pure agony. Our thighs and backs got glued to the leather seats and little droplets of sweat formed small streams running down our faces. A sauna would have been wayyyy more comfortable than that.

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We stayed at Hotel Fabrizio, which unfortunately ended up being a bit of a disappointment. The booking site advertised a room with a balcony, but in reality there was only a tiny window. The room was dark and dingy. The staff were very friendly but quite disorganised: for example, they tried to charge us twice for the same room. Nobody spoke English, but we were able to get by on body language and a few words of elementary school German. On the bonus side, the breakfast was pretty good (although only served for one hour from 8 to 9 a.m.), and beach chairs and umbrellas were included in the room price, whereas normally you’d have to rent them for 20-25€/day or 85€/week.

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Our pain and suffering subsided as soon as we settled in and got to wander around town. Caorle is a cute, small town full of colourful houses and beaches stretching as far as the eye can see – a perfect spot for simply loafing around for a few days. Each day of our three-day beach vacation pretty much followed the same routine: breakfast at the hotel, off to the beach until lunch, a shower and a nap in our air-conditioned room, and finally venturing out to enjoy the colour therapy while looking for a nice place for dinner.

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The Old Town of Caorle is made up of a maze of narrow streets and tiny squares surrounded by cheerfully colourful houses. For that reason, Caorle is also called Little Venice, even without any canals. For me, the low and colourful buildings are reminiscent of Miami Beach, and I love that! When I see these kinds of places, I’m always hit with architecture jealousy – why don’t we use any colours in Finland? (NB! Grey and beige are not colours!) It would make November a million times more bearable if we got to enjoy a rainbow of colours on our way to school and work like they do in Caorle.

Caorle

When it comes to restaurants, the menus in Caorle are naturally full of all kinds of seafood in addition to the usual pizzas and pastas. All of it is definitely worth sampling! And even though it’s the promised land of pasta we’re talking about here, I have to make this outrageous recommendation for an excellent Chinese restaurant called Nuova Hong Kong: they serve incredibly tasty food at reasonable prices, the service is friendly and fast, and they have outdoor seating at a charming little square away from the noisiest streets. This is a great opportunity to add a little variety to your diet, especially if you’re staying in Italy for an extended period of time.

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One morning we made an exception to the routine I mentioned earlier and walked to the beach to watch the sunrise. At 5 a.m., there were only a handful of joggers and photographers around. We also got to check out the outdoor art exhibition, consisting of dozens of carved rocks, without herds of German tourists blocking the view. I really, really love the sunrise vibe, but I never have the energy nor motivation to wake up for it in Finland. Everything’s different when you’re on holiday.

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Despite its unique architecture, Caorle is quite a typical beach holiday destination in the sense that it comes alive in cycles and the atmosphere changes completely between these cycles. During daytime, people enjoy the sun and the sea, the beaches are teeming with tourists and pink skin sizzles in the heat. In the late afternoon, everything quiets down as people retreat indoors to have a siesta and perhaps something to eat. And once darkness sets in, the quiet streets are suddenly back to life and full of couples and families. Neon lights blink at arcades, ice-cream sellers rake in the dough and shoe stores (open until late night) invite people in for some impulse shopping. It’s a unique vibe I’m sure everyone who’s ever been to a beach destination recognises. Caorle is among the best, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone with a basic grasp of Italian or German!

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Prices (June 2019): Caorle

  • Flixbus Ljubljana–Trieste: 10€ pp (upstairs premium seat)
  • Train Trieste–Portogruaro: 9€ pp
  • Local bus ticket Portogruaro–Caorle: 3€
  • Accommodation, Hotel Fabrizio: 76.35€/night/room for 2 + tourist tax 0.70€ per night per person
  • Renting beach chairs and umbrellas: 20–25€/day or 85€/week
  • Pizza and drinks for two, Hotel Negretto: 28€ (incl. service fee)
  • Slushie 3€, water bottle 1€

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.