I love a good castle, and have done ever since I was a kiddie. The best ones contain dungeons and dank and shadowy stone rooms—the draughtier and murkier, the better. When I was a kid such places were made a lot less scary by the fact I was generally accompanied by my dad when visiting them. Although, he couldn’t necessarily be trusted not to hide behind things and jump out at the scariest of moments. Sadly, nowadays, more often than not, I travel solo—no big strong man to keep me safe. In February this found me alone in the casemates at Kronborg Castle with only Holgor the Dane for company—a big strong man of sorts, although more the strong, silent type. Little did I know that my delicate nerves would be tested again so soon after Hamlet’s castle, this time at Mont Orgueil Castle, overlooking Gorey Bay in Jersey. Mont Orgueil Castle is fabulous, construction having begun back in 1204. Centuries of adaptations and repairs have resulted in an incredible maze of a place, which has been ably assisted by Jersey Heritage Trust who have seemingly purposefully left off any signs directing you around the property. Not a complaint, at all, I enjoyed exploring all its mysterious nooks and crannies in search of hidden treasures, including the medieval wheel of urine and “wound man” (don’t ask, just go see for yourselves). Well, that was until I entered the room that contained The Witches of Hell and turned around and found this chap.
Big Sis and I claim not to be competitive, but that’s a bit of a fib. We are actually slightly competitive about all manner of random things, which explains how a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Guernsey. You see, Big Sis had already been to Jersey, so when I decided to go to the Channel Islands for a brief holiday in June I automatically chose to visit Guernsey, because she hadn’t been there. It’s tragic, I know, but that’s just the way siblings work sometimes. And just to score an extra point in the “who has been to the most interesting places” game, I spent a morning on another island in the Bailiwick of Guernsey too: Herm. The Channel Islands are an archipelago of British Crown Dependencies in the English Channel, off the French coast of Normandy. Herm, measuring just a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, lies three miles from Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands. It’s dinky, and very picturesque; it can be circumnavigated on foot in under two hours. I caught the early ferry, which had a number of advantages, including being cheaper than the later ones and depositing me on Herm before the multitudes arrived, and trailed around its empty clifftop paths and beaches anti-clockwise, marvelling at the beautiful coastal views and the fabulous beaches. I’ve always had a thing for islands and Herm could hold its own against any other. Sometimes, being a little bit competitive with your siblings definitely pays off.
Day 6 ended in a Bedouin tent amidst the Merzouga sand dunes, so unsurprisingly that’s where day 7 began. Awakening at first light, it was a weary trudge to the top of the closest dune for sunrise. Cloud cover tried its hardest to spoil the rising sun’s transformation of the landscape, but the departing shadows revealed intriguing tiny tracks passing across the surface of the desert sand, left by some mysterious local wildlife, I presume.
Back at camp, Bernard was ready for the return trip; my rear however was not. The morning was cold enough to require a coat and gloves and gone was the sense of frivolity from the outward trek – Bernard and his pals were no longer quite such a novelty mode of transport.
Outside the hotel I dismounted and gave Bernard a final grateful pat goodbye. A small boy with a fennec on a piece of string touted for business; I didn’t take him up on his offer of a photo with the lonely-looking, big-eared creature.
At breakfast I sat for a while holding two freshly boiled eggs, trying to encourage movement back into my frozen hands. A hot shower was very welcome, and then it was time to get back on the road – to Todra Gorge, 280 km west, via Errachidia.
The countryside was a rough, rocky wilderness, interspersed with the occasional settlement of mud and straw buildings, built low and angular, a palette of pretty oranges and browns against blue sky, all nestled among a green oasis of palm trees.
We stopped at a fossil shop in Erfoud. The area is rich in fossils, but be aware that there are concerns that lax controls on fossil sales and over-excavation are putting what must be every amateur palaeontologist’s dream destination in danger. Great slabs of rock are quarried from the surrounding area and fashioned by artisans into anything from a small dish to a coffee table that you could never get bored of inspecting. It really is quite incredible, particularly when you’ve spent your childhood scavenging around Robin Hood’s Bay for even just one tiny trilobite.
Being at the mercy of a guide, we couldn’t explore beyond the shop chosen by the Exodus/Imaginative Traveller tour, which is a real shame as I believe there’s a museum dedicated to fossils and minerals in town. That’s one of the main negatives of organised travel for you.
Another is being shepherded into a café at the side of the road to have an over-priced and uninspiring lunch in the company of every other tour group in the vicinity. Not very ‘imaginative’, Imaginative.
The hotel was set in the side of the gorge and, well, it wasn’t quite finished. It looked like it would be great, come summer, once the pool was finished and the rooms fully wired and furnished. They were obviously also quite concerned about their electric bills as although pretty cold they’d hidden all the remote controls for the in-room heaters. I’m all for saving the planet, but don’t tempt me with the promise of warmth at a time of year when even daytime temperatures can be in single digits.
The main dining room thankfully had a lovely open fire, which made up for the lack of spice in what was otherwise a filling dinner. Was this the tourist version of Moroccan food? I’d imagined spices and interesting and unusual flavours, but I was beginning to think it was just a naïve pipedream.
Last weekend my sister and I went for a little stroll, from Winchester to Portsmouth, on the Pilgrims Trail. It’s part of a much bigger network of historic pilgrim trails across Europe, of which the Camino is also part. We’re not religious and we weren’t out looking for anything deep or meaningful, we just fancied getting out into the Hampshire countryside over the bank holiday. This photo was taken on day one, the Winchester to Bishops Waltham stretch. Big sis told me that all I needed to do was to figure out the train times to Winchester, so taking her at her word and knowing she had walked part of the route in reverse once before, I didn’t worry about maps or directions. The route was liberally decorated with oilseed rape fields, beautifully brightening up the countryside with a blanket of sunshine yellow – which was particularly nice because the actual sun certainly wasn’t doing its job. This field appeared just after we had crossed a small airfield, the public footpath taking us straight across its freshly mown runway, no signs warning of impending take-offs or landings. I guess you were just supposed to keep an eye and an ear out for light aircraft pootling in your direction. Having walked some of the Camino, I thought we were probably also supposed to just keep an eye out for signs pointing us in the right direction. Silly me. The trail signs were a little sporadic in parts, big sis’ phone died, leaving us without directions, her memory of the route turned out to be a little hazy, and we had no map. Being former Air Cadets, with two Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards between us, we did both have a compass though. What either of us was planning to do with them without maps is anyone’s guess!
This is HMS Warrior, berthed in the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth in the UK. Launched in 1860, she was Britain’s first iron-hulled, armoured warship, part of Queen Victoria’s fleet. She was built as a serious deterrent during the arms race between France and Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century, amidst fears that wooden-hulled ships provided diminishing protection against advances in naval weaponry. Sadly, she was soon herself obsolete, as mast-less ships were introduced. Placed in reserve in 1875, paid off in 1883, she spent some wilderness years as a storeship, a depot ship and an oil jetty before finally being donated to the Maritime Trust in 1987 for restoration. Now, as a member of the National Historic Fleet, which includes other Portsmouth Historic Dockyard gems like HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, she serves out her days as a museum ship, a historic monument and, as it turns out, an unusual venue for all manner of occasions.
On Saturday 18 April 2015 she was host to, of all things, a beer festival. For £25/person she opened her doors for those fortunate enough to have spotted what was an excellent idea for an event. I’d not visited before, entry costs £18 (adult) on any regular day of the week, which seems a little steep to me (although you can buy an All Attraction ticket for £32 – £25.60 if you buy in advance online – which grants entry to all of Portsmouth’s maritime/naval attractions and is valid for a year). Our extra £7 paid for a pie and a free drink (plus a festival pint glass), and a couple of pretty decent local bands. I’m not sure heavy drinking on a historic monument is an entirely good idea (I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to clear up later, for example), but it was quite exciting to be able to explore the engine rooms and the captain’s quarters, etc., minus the whinging rugrats and disinterested school groups. Though, after a few glasses of toffee cider and some Old Dick, the steep ship stairs, low ceilings, and numerous metal things sticking up out of the decking did become a bit of a challenge! A definite recommendation for those interested in craft beers and naval history, individually or combined.
Our accommodation in Merzouga was fashioned out of clay and straw, positioned in a lovely little spot next to the dunes, surrounded by palms. Our room was right by the pool, enclosed in a small courtyard and noticeably warmer than some of our previous locations. With the lights off that night, the darkness was complete. It’s been a long time since I have slept somewhere quite so devoid of light pollution, it was slightly unnerving.
After breakfast, C and I headed dune-ward. Idiotically we didn’t think to take water, but we were only venturing far enough to get an idea of the vastness of the desert, and, frankly, to take some cool photos, aiming to capture the extraordinary shade of the sand against the solid blue sky. It was definitely a good time of year to be in Merzouga, the dunes were our own giant sand pit, with just a few tyre tracks indicating that someone out there in the sandy wilderness might be playing with some much bigger, and definitely more mechanical, toys.
We were the first in a dotted line of Exodus travellers plodding up the dunes. I didn’t mind the followers, at least if we stuck together we couldn’t get lost, our mutated footprints acting as a useful trail back to camp.
After messing around on the dunes for a while, we returned and made a visit to a local carpet shop – “No obligation to buy.” We perused the wares, and had a spot of tea and some lunch: a big round bread, full of onions and eggs (honestly much nicer than it sounds). The non-veggies had some variety of meat with theirs. I was a bit sad that I didn’t have the disposable funds to seriously consider the rugs and carpets, there really were some impressive bits of weaving. They may have said that no offer would be considered rude, but I couldn’t have proposed a price that wouldn’t have embarrassed us all.
Back at the hotel, all noticeably carpet-less, some of us slightly more adventurous types tested out the pool. Note to self: blue sky and sunshine does not equal warm outdoor pool, particularly one that’s been exposed to the cold desert night. I jumped in, nay leapt vigorously, aware it was going to be a little bracing. Blimey! My heart skipped a beat and I struggled to manage a credible stroke to get me back to the side. February in Saharan Morocco was obviously not outdoor swimming weather.
The relaxing morning was a precursor to the day’s main activity: a camel trek into the desert to a Bedouin-style camp. We gathered at 4pm, meeting our guides and their camels. The camels, tethered together in three groups, seemed like particularly massive beasts to this uninitiated rider. I immediately named mine Bernard; he looked like a Bernard. We all agreed that J had the prettiest. Another, Kevin, kept trying to put his head on C’s knee, it appeared he’d taken quite a shine to her. Hopefully he wasn’t just a bit peckish and looking for a nice meaty snack to supplement his daily diet of grass.
The camp was nestled amidst the dunes, and consisted of a cooking tent, a dinner tent and sleeping tents, some small ones for the couples and larger ones for the solo travellers – one for the girls and another for the boys. If you needed to make use of the facilities you’d just have to find a shady spot behind a dune and whistle. We hopped off our trusty dromedaries and raced up the nearest big dune to enjoy the sunset.
Every inch of the sun’s descent towards the horizon heralded another subtle colour change in the sand. The vibrant orange landscape darkened and the shadows lengthened, whilst the warming final rays gave way to a chill atmosphere as we finally lost the sun. We gradually meandered back down to camp.
Dinner was the usual tagine of cous cous and vegetables, but tasted infinitely better for being consumed outdoors. After a simple dessert of juicy oranges, we joined the guides around a camp fire under the stars for a spot of entertainment. The young men played the drums – bongo style – and in good humour tried to get us each to have a go. After a few not so spectacular attempts, one of the gents from our group, a retired man in his late 60s, piped up that he’d like to have a go. It was miraculous, he drummed like a complete pro. It was the most unexpected thing and certainly surprised the guides who did their best to keep up. His wife later admitted that he’d been filling his retirement by learning a few new skills!
Eventually we headed for the sleeping tents. All rugged up and cosy, it would be a most comfortable camping experience.
When I flashed the man my ticket and declared I wanted to see the casemates at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør on Monday I hadn’t actually any idea what that meant. I was just making sure I got my money’s worth, I’m that kind of traveller. What on earth is a casemate? It turns out the term originally referred to a vaulted chamber in a fortress, which in reality now means a dark, scary, underground bit in a draughty, old castle. And in winter that means this solo traveller, all alone, scrabbling around in very dingy candlelight in the bowels of Hamlet’s famous Danish fortress.
Forty-five km north of Copenhagen, Helsingør is overwhelmed by the magnificent edifice of Kronberg (immortalised as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Once home to the kings and queens of Denmark from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, it has been home for a much shorter time to a striking concrete representation of Holger the Dane, a heroic, mythical figure who first appeared in medieval French literature as one of Charlemagne’s great warriors. According to legend, when the Danish kingdom is threatened by a foreign enemy, the stone figure will come to life and rise up to defend his country.
He is certainly an impressive sight, resting with his sword and shield, ready to be called into action. As I tentatively tiptoed past him I hoped he wouldn’t see this frightened little English lady as a threat to his kingdom and that he might see his way to waking up and holding my hand if I encountered something more otherworldly on my travels around his shadowy home.