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Clare

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  1. We were always going to have a big day of driving ahead of us today, with the shortest route from Culloden to Hawick being around 209 miles. This route didn't look like it would be terribly exciting though, as it would involve retracing Wednesday's journey through Aviemore, Pitlochry and Perth. Although that had admittedly been a really scenic route, we felt like we'd rather try something different. Looking at the map last night, we came up with the idea of driving across Scotland to Fort William, and from there taking the road through Glen Coe. We had stayed in Fort William during both our 2010 and 2011 trips to Scotland and remembered it as being a really beautiful place. The start of our journey saw us retracing the route from Culloden to Fort Augustus which we'd followed on Thursday, driving past the viewpoint at Loch Tarff. Resisting the temptation to get out of the car and do the walk again, we continued on to Fort William, arriving just before midday. Although the town felt small to us, it's actually the second largest in the Highlands (with Inverness being the biggest). The population of Fort William is less than 11,000 though (and the metropolis of Inverness is actually smaller than Nuneaton!). The main thing we remembered about Fort William from our previous visits were the views. The town is situated on Loch Linnhe, one of Scotland's sea lochs. When we've stayed here before, it's been in guest houses with beautiful views out across the loch. Today we paid for an hour of parking in the town and followed a path down to the beach. From here we were able to stroll through a garden alongside the loch. The flowers, combined with the views, were really beautiful. I particularly liked these pink flowers The weather was much sunnier today than it had been yesterday and I'd remembered to put sun cream on for a change. We were also wearing midge spray, because the midge forecast for Fort William and Glen Coe looked particularly bad. There weren't any midges here though and so we were able to enjoy the views unmolested The views were so nice that it was tempting to keep walking indefinitely, but we had a long day ahead of us so we needed to get back to the car. Our next destination was Glen Coe, which we had also visited during our 2010 and 2011 trips. That was a long time ago though and I hadn't remembered quite how spectacular the journey was going to be. As we followed the road alongside Loch Linnhe, it was so beautiful that we had to make an unscheduled stop to take some photos Just look at the views! We were really lucky to be here on such a sunny day; I can imagine that if we'd been here in the rain on Tuesday, it wouldn't have been possible to see a thing. The place where we'd been taking photos was a small settlement called North Ballachulish. From there, we crossed the loch via a large bridge (not the best photo as taken through the windscreen!). From there it was only a couple of miles until we reached the small village of Glencoe. Just driving through the village looking for parking was a scenic experience! We found a small forest car park just outside the village and left the car there. From there we walked back into Glencoe in search of somewhere to get lunch. We found a small cafe where we were able to get a sandwich and some excellent cake Tim even had some Irn Bru! Lunch complete, we walked back towards the car. The car park was next to a small lake, so we followed a trail to get to a viewpoint. The water was so clear here that you could see the reflections of the mountains in the lake We didn't have time to walk too far, because we still had a long journey ahead of us to get to Hawick. Leaving the car park behind, the first part of our journey was down this single track road with incredible views. After that we joined the main road, but the views were no less spectacular. The road through Glen Coe is supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in the UK and it's easy to see why. You could spend all day on the road if you stopped at every viewpoint. We were trying not to do that, but eventually we had to give into temptation and pull over. I don't know what the name of this little loch was, but it was in a really lovely location. Tim couldn't resist capturing it on video And I was particularly excited when we found these purple thistles growing; you couldn't really hope for anything more Scottish! Time was pressing on though, so reluctantly we had to get back in the car and continue our journey south. The rest of the journey was actually pretty scenic too. We passed through Bridge of Orchy again, realising to our surprise that it actually wasn't particularly far from Glen Coe, and then we followed a small road through the Loch Lomand and Trossachs national park. After that the scenery became a bit flatter, although we did get an unexpectedly good view of Stirling castle. It was 8pm before we finally made it into Hawick, where we are staying in the same accommodation as last Saturday. That made things really easy, because we knew exactly where we were going and were able to let ourselves in with a key code. All that remained was to walk to the local Wetherspoons to get some dinner. And, of course, come back to do the blog
  2. When we woke up this morning it was immediately clear that it wasn't going to be such a sunny day as yesterday. The sky was quite cloudy, but the weather forecast suggested that it was going to stay dry until mid-afternoon at least, so we were hopeful that we could fit in a day's worth of activities before things turned wet. As this holiday was quite spontaneous we haven't done a lot of research in advance, so the plan for today was to follow two more recommendations from the tourist leaflet which we picked up in Aviemore. The first of these was to visit Craig Phadrig, a wooded hill above Inverness. It was only a few miles away from where we are staying in Culloden, so we had soon arrived and were consulting the information board about walks. There seemed to be two marked trails, yellow and blue. The yellow was slightly longer, so we decided to start with that one. The trail took us through a pleasant wooded landscape. After 15 minutes or so of walking, we emerged at a viewpoint from where we could see out across the Moray Firth. We'd soon completed the yellow walk, so began to follow the blue one instead. This one led more steeply uphill, towards an ancient hill fort on the top of the hill. Once we got to the top we just had to imagine that there had once been a hill fort here There wasn't any visible trace of it. The views were pretty though Both walks complete, we got back in the car and set out on the road around Loch Ness again. Not quite as sunny today, but it was still pretty. I read last night that Loch Ness is so deep, it contains more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined Our main destination of the day was a place called Glen Strathfarrar which, like Glen Affric, the leaflet had recommended as being a really beautiful spot. We found it without too much difficulty, but what the leaflet hadn't explained was that the road through the glen is a gated private road and in order to enter by car, you need to have arranged a permit. You can visit the glen on a bike or by foot without a permit, so we decided to walk and see how far we could get. The small road runs through the glen for miles. It follows the route of the river Farrar, which gives the glen its name. At first the road led through forest, which was nice and shady. Then the landscape began to open up a bit and we got some better views Although we were walking on a road, there wasn't a lot of traffic. At one point we were passed by the postman and another time a jeep with people sitting on the roof(!) whizzed past us. Otherwise it was very quiet and peaceful. We didn't meet any other walkers and only a couple of people cycled past us. This was definitely a good place to come to achieve social distancing The road climbed upwards for a while, leading towards a flatter boggy area. There was so much heather here. From looking at the map, we could tell that there were several lochs in the glen and we were hoping that we might be able to walk as far as the first of these. Unfortunately, as we walked further it became clear that the weather up ahead of us wasn't too good. We persevered for a while, but the clouds looked progressively darker and then we felt the first spots of rain start to fall. We made the decision to turn around, in the hope that we could out-walk the rain back to the car park Surprisingly, we actually managed this and the return route looked a lot brighter We followed the road the way we had come, through the forest... ...and alongside the river. By the time we got back to the car we were both rather tired, having clocked up over 24,000 steps! We were definitely in need of a rest, but there was one final destination which we wanted to investigate: a waterfall called Dog Falls which we had seen signposted at the start of Glen Affric yesterday. We were only a few miles away from the road to Glen Affric and it was a very scenic drive. We found the car park for Dog Falls and paid £1 to park, then followed a signposted trail towards the falls. They weren't very far away, but when we got there we found them somewhat... underwhelming! The viewpoint wasn't as good as the one at Plodda Falls yesterday, so for a start it was difficult to even see the waterfall (it starts in the bottom left hand corner of this photo). There were some nice views down the river, though. Eventually Tim found a part of the viewpoint where he could hold his phone over the fence and get a shot of the actual waterfall I guess it might have been more impressive if we hadn't been to Plodda Falls yesterday! We turned around and walked back along the river towards the car, passing another small waterfall on the way. It was around 5pm by this point and starting to spot with rain, plus we were getting close to having walked 30,000 steps, so it felt like time to head back to Culloden and get some food
  3. When we woke up this morning it was a bright sunny day in Culloden The place where we're staying is really beautiful. While I was still sleeping, Tim got up and had a stroll around outside. This is the house which has our apartment in it. Once I'd got up and we'd had breakfast, we went for another stroll together around the nearby roads. Although it was only about 09.30, it was already starting to feel warm in the sun. I should probably have taken this as a prompt to go back and put sun cream on, but I didn't think! We got in the car and started driving. Our rough plan was to drive along the eastern shore of Loch Ness towards Fort Augustus. Unfortunately, the Sat Nav didn't quite find the road we were hoping for and we ended up following a different route through the mountains instead. While I was initially disappointed not to see Loch Ness, the views from the road were stunning. When we were getting close to Fort Augustus, we saw a sign for a small parking area and decided to take the opportunity to get out of the car for a stroll. I saw some other people coming down from a viewpoint on the far side of the road, so we decided to give that a go. We didn't have to walk far before we began to get some excellent views Not quite Loch Ness, but it was still very pretty! The path climbed upwards, but it didn't feel as steep as the walk we did at Aviemore yesterday. The higher we climbed, the further into the distance we could see. It was a spectacular landscape, and there was lots of purple heather to admire too. I had assumed it would be quite a short walk, but we continued climbing higher above the road. Rather than leading to a single viewpoint, the path seemed to provide new views every time we turned a corner. We passed another small lake which was shimmering in the sunshine. Eventually we seemed to have finished climbing upwards and followed a flatter section of the path along the top of the hill. When we turned around we could still look back towards the first lake we'd seen... ...and there were some amazing mountain views too. We weren't sure how long the trail was going to be, but it was tempting to just keep going. After a while it started to lead downhill... ...and as we turned a corner we got our first glimpse of another lake. This was Loch Tarff. It was only a small loch but it was really pretty, with a few small islands in the middle of it. We realised that the path was leading down towards it, so we decided to follow it the whole way down and then return to the car via the road. As we got closer to the lake, the views were even better. We could have stood and looked at them all day. We needed to get back to the car though to continue with the rest of our day, so once we got to the end of the path we retraced our steps along the road. Fortunately it was the sort of road which is quite pleasant to walk on We ended up driving straight through Fort Augustus, as it didn't look like there was a whole lot to see there. From there we got onto the main road, which leads around the western shore of Loch Ness. Finally, we could see it Loch Ness is huge, and we followed the road around it for about 18 miles to a small town called Drumnadrochit. There's a Loch Ness monster exhibition there which I think we visited on our first road trip around Scotland in 2010. Today we decided to give it a miss and took a small side road leading away from the lake, signposted towards a place called Cannich. We were planning to drive to a place called Glen Affric, which a leaflet we'd picked up from tourist information in Aviemore yesterday had described as one of the most scenic places in Scotland. We got a bit sidetracked though, when we stopped at a Spar in Cannich to buy some water. The lady behind the till recommended that we drive to the nearby village of Tomich to get lunch and told us that from there we would be able to visit a waterfall called Plodda Falls. We were feeling pretty hungry at this point so we decided to take her advice! Soon we were in Tomich, having lunch in a beer garden with a beautiful view It was so good that we stayed for pudding too! From Tomich it was only a few miles to the waterfall, which is located on some Forestry Commission land. We followed a wide trail through the trees. There were two waymarked trails - a white one and a green one - with the green one being longer. We decided to follow the green one. The green route led us quite steeply downhill, which is always a bit disconcerting when you know you have to go back up again to get back to your car. Eventually we emerged at a river bed. From here the path led back up again. Partway up we saw a signpost to a viewpoint. I debated whether to follow it because it seemed to involve going downhill yet again, but I'm glad we did, because when we reached the bottom this was the view we got of the waterfall The problem with having been to Iceland is that it ruins all future waterfall experiences for you; nothing can compete with the likes of Gullfoss and Dettifoss. But for a waterfall outside of Iceland, this one was pretty impressive. From where we were standing at the bottom of the falls, we could see a viewing platform at the top. There was some more uphill to do to get there! When we did, we found the views from the top weren't actually as good as from down below. It was hard to capture in a photo anyway, but you can see the views more clearly in the video Once we left the platform behind, there was just a bit more uphill to do before we got back to the car. Then we were finally on our way to Glen Affric! There's a single track road which leads through the glen and there are various parking places to stop and admire the views. The road runs alongside Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin, one of two lochs in the glen. We got some spectacular views of it as we drove along, but unfortunately in the photos we tried to take it was obscured by trees. The road comes to an end at the far side of this loch, before you get as far as the second loch, Loch Affric. We left the car in a carpark here an started following a signposted viewpoint trail. In what seems to have been the theme for today, this involved walking uphill. It was worth it though, as we were soon able to look down the glen towards Loch Affric. It was really beautiful - I can see why the leaflet described this as one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. There was definitely a lot more we could have seen and done in Glen Affric, but it was after half five now and we were feeling tired, so it was time to head back towards Culloden. I think today easily wins the prize for most scenic day of the holiday
  4. When we woke up this morning we were relieved to see that it had finally stopped raining! Today we would be leaving Dundee behind and driving towards our final destination of Culloden, near Inverness. In total the journey would be around 137 miles and we were hoping that it was going to be a scenic one, taking us through part of the Cairngorms National Park. The first part of the journey wasn't terribly exciting, as we left Dundee behind us and headed in the direction of Perth. But from there things began to look more scenic. We had planned to make our first stop in Pitlochry and it wasn't long before we were driving alongside the river Tummel, which flows through the town. We found a place to park outside the town's tourist information office and set off to explore. It seemed like a pretty town, with lots of large hotels and guesthouses. Having consulted an information board, we began following signs towards a nearby dam. The signs led us to a bridge across the river Tummel. It was a rather strange bridge, which shook slightly as we walked across it. From the middle of the bridge, we could see how large the river is. There was definitely plenty of water in it after all yesterday's rain! In the opposite direction we could also just make out the dam in the distance. The bank on the far side of the river was lined with pretty little cottages. There were lots of beautiful flowers. Once we reached the dam we climbed up a staircase and got our first view of Loch Faskally. This is an artificial lake which was created in 1947 when the river was dammed. You wouldn't know it was artificial to look at it, though. We followed a trail along the side of the lake. When we got to the far end, a little footbridge took us back across the river. As you can see from the photos, it was cloudy on this walk but after the persistent rain yesterday it was just great to be able to go for a walk and not get soaked Once we'd crossed the bridge, we came to a little settlement where there were tonnes of ducks From there we had a slightly rushed walk back into Pitlochry, in an attempt to get back to the car park before our parking expired. We just about made it and soon we were back in the car again, driving towards our second stop of Aviemore. It was lunchtime when we arrived, so we parked the car and set off to find somewhere to get food. We soon found this nice pub, where we were able to sit outside... ...and I had one of the nicest macaroni cheeses I've had in ages The bill came to much less than we were expecting which was slightly confusing, until we realised we'd had an "Eat out to help out" discount applied. After lunch we had a stroll along the main street of the town. We were heading towards a nature reserve just on the outskirts. It didn't take long to find it, and soon we were strolling through the woods. The first attraction marked on the map was a lake, but when we found it it looked more like a puddle There was a marked trail around the edge of the water but it didn't look like it would be worth the effort. Instead, we started following a path which led slightly upwards. Soon we had views back down towards the town. As we climbed higher, we also began to get views of the Cairngorm mountains. The path continued to lead uphill... ...and the views got even better At this point the path started to get steeper and we had to make a decision about whether we wanted to continue to the signposted viewpoint. It wasn't clear how much more uphill there was going to be, but we'd come far enough by this stage that I thought it would be a shame to turn around without making it to the top. We carried on and the path levelled off a bit for a while, leading us over some flatter ground. There was so much beautiful heather The flatness of the path was short-lived and we were soon climbing higher again. The last part of the route was very steep indeed! Finally we made it to the viewpoint at the top The views were definitely worth the climb We could see down towards Aviemore and out towards the Cairngorm National Park. We enjoyed the scenery for a while... ...and then it was time to start thinking about heading back down. There were some great views on the way down too. Almost as good as the views at Bridge of Orchy When we got to the bottom of the path we found a lake. It looked larger than the one we'd passed on the way up. It turned out to be a completely different one and we passed the small one again a bit later. I think the viewpoint we'd been to was somewhere up there on the hill above us. By the time we got back to the centre of town, where we'd been looked rather high. We felt justified in being a bit tired! Luckily all we had to do now was find the car and drive the remaining 30 miles to Culloden. Even the car park in Aviemore was quite scenic! We found our accommodation in Culloden without any difficulties and were able to retrieve the keys from a keysafe. We've got a spacious living/dining area... ...plus a cosy little bedroom. And outside the front door we have a view of sheep! It's a bit in the middle of nowhere, but the phone and internet signals both seem good. And tomorrow looks like it's going to be a rain-free day
  5. When we woke up this morning it was pouring with rain. Not just slightly raining, but pouring torrentially. We had a rather slow start to the day, hoping that it might clear up a bit, but when we checked the weather forecast it looked like it was going to rain all over Scotland for the entire day, so we had to make some wet weather plans! When we'd stayed in Hawick on Saturday night, the owner of the apartment we'd rented had recommended that we visit the small coastal town of Broughty Ferry while we were in Dundee. It was only a few miles away from where we were staying, so we decided to give it a go. First impressions when we arrived was that it didn't look as scenic as I expected, but places are never at their best in the rain! We parked the car on a side street and set off for a stroll towards the beach. The beach was beautifully sandy and there were even some little sand dunes. But everywhere was a bit damp We walked along the esplanade for a while, looking for the castle. It didn't look particularly old to me, but apparently Broughty castle was originally built in 1495! It was closed today so we couldn't go in. We walked back along by the beach instead. In the distance we could see the not very scenic port of Dundee, and also the bridge over the river Tay. We were quite wet by this point and seemed to have exhausted the immediate attractions of Broughty Ferry, so headed back to the car. The Visit Scotland website had recommended driving along the A92 towards Aberdeen, which was described as a scenic coastal route, so that was our next plan. The road took us north, through towns such as Arbroath and Montrose, towards Aberdeen. At times the road was quite close to the coast and we could get glimpses of the North Sea, which makes me think that it probably is a really scenic drive on a sunny day. But today was so wet and cloudy that the sea and the sky were just merging into one general kind of greyness, and it wasn't possible to get any photos. We did cross over some impressive bridges though, like this one over the river Esk. The journey to Aberdeen was around 66 miles in total. We arrived in the early afternoon and quickly found somewhere to park. I didn't know a lot about Aberdeen, but had the impression that it might be rather grey. That turned out to be correct! We walked down Union Street, which looked like it must be one of the city's main streets. The building with the large tower is Aberdeen Town House, which was built in 1874. The building with the smaller tower at the far end of the street is apparently the Salvation Army Citadel. The citadel stands in a pretty square. We were incredibly wet by this point, though. Not only was it pouring with rain but there was a strong wind in Aberdeen which was driving it into our faces. All in all the weather was just too miserable to do any significant exploring! We decided to go back to the car to dry out and begin the drive back towards Dundee. Today probably hasn't been the most exciting of holiday days, but we at least attempted to make the best of the weather. And the good news is that tomorrow looks more like it might just be cloudy and/or showery rather than being one long constant downpour Fingers crossed!
  6. Our ultimate aim for the day was to drive from Dumbarton to Dundee, on the eastern side of Scotland. If we took the most direct route, it would be a journey of around 85 miles, but we wanted to have the most scenic drive possible. After breakfast in Dumbarton, we therefore initially drove north, in the direction of Loch Lomond. Our first destination was the small village of Luss, which we'd visited on one of our previous trips to Scotland and remembered as being really attractive. It didn't take us long to arrive and find a car park, from where we could walk down to the shores of the loch. It was a little bit wet this morning, but the views were beautiful even with the mist. We even founds some swans and ducks The village of Luss itself is very pretty too. Apparently it's famous because the Scottish TV series "Take the high road" was filmed there, but I don't think I've ever seen it. It's only a small village, so once we'd had a wander around and finished admiring the lake, it was time to get back in the car. There were some amazing views of Loch Lomond as we continued to follow the main road around the western shore of the lake. The weather began to brighten up as we drove, and by the time we reached the next viewpoint it was starting to look sunny I can't remember what this place was called, but there was a small car park with a path to follow towards a viewpoint out across the water. It was definitely worth stopping to admire the views here After the viewpoint we continued driving north, towards a village called Bridge of Orchy. It was a really beautiful drive By the time we got to Bridge of Orchy the clouds were starting to look a bit darker, though. There isn't much in the village itself but there was a small car park here where we were able to leave the car and walk along a bit of the West Highland Way. We followed the path, climbing up through a forest. It did rain for a while, and when we turned around we could see the hills were disappearing into the mist. After walking uphill for a while, we got our first glimpse of some water in the distance. It was still rather damp and misty when looking back towards Bridge of Orchy... ...but once we reached the high point of the walk and started descending the other side, things started to brighten up We were now getting closer to the water, which turned out to be a lake called Loch Tulla. The path led us past this solitary windswept tree... ...and then began to lead down to this small cluster of white houses which we could see in the distance. It was hard not to just keep taking photos of the same views, because they were so spectacular As we got closer to the loch we could see that the water looked quite dark in places. It reminded me a bit of the black lake which we'd once walked around in Montenegro. The weather was now beginning to look much sunnier Our destination was looking closer too. We were walking down towards the Inveroran hotel, where we were hoping to get some refreshments. Luckily it did indeed turn out to be open and we were able to get a couple of paninis for lunch Suitably refreshed, we then just had to trek back to our car at Bridge of Orchy. The weather had gone off a bit again by this point and it was rather windy! It was still a lovely walk with some great views though! After an hour or so we could see Bridge of Orchy appearing in the distance. The mist had cleared again on the mountains here. The weather was very fast-changing today! We got back to the car some time after 3pm and then had two hours of driving across Scotland to Dundee. First impressions of Dundee from driving through it are that it is nowhere near as pretty as Bridge of Orchy We're staying in a serviced apartment here, which seems like good value for money at £75/night. In addition to the bedroom there's a large living area... ...and a kitchen too. We were feeling a bit tired after our hiking today, so decided to save exploring Dundee for tomorrow and have a night in instead
  7. The apartment which we were staying in in Hawick was very well equipped, to the extent that the owners had even provided croissants for us to have for breakfast It was a nice dry morning in Scotland, so once we'd eaten them we set out to explore a bit more of the town. I forgot to mention in yesterday's blog that "Hawick" is not pronounced anything like I expected. In my head I was calling it "Haw-wick" but it turns out it's pronounced more like "Hoyk" We'd been recommended to visit Wilton Lodge Park, which is supposed to be one of the best parks in Scotland. It wasn't actually too far from where we were staying, just a few streets away and across the river. When we got to the park we found it had actually won a prize for best park in the UK in 2019 It was nice, but not sure it was quite impressive enough to deserve that title It was quite a large park though and so we were able to do quite a long walk. By the time we'd done a circuit and were heading back towards the town it was after 10am, we'd walked 8 000 steps and we were starting to feel the need for a second breakfast. We ended up back in Wetherspoons for brunch, where I had a quorn sausage roll for the bargain price of £2.80. Scotland seems to be good value for money so far. We checked out of our apartment just after 11. The aim of the day was to drive to Dumbarton, a small town on the western side of Scotland, not far from Glasgow. We didn't want to just have a boring motorway drive towards Glasgow though, so we planned a slightly longer but much more scenic route, initially driving cross-country in the direction of Dumfries. The route took us through some really beautiful countryside. We didn't pass through many settlements, but we saw an awful lot of sheep The road we were travelling on unexpectedly turned out to be closed for repairs not far outside Dumfries. There were no diversion signs so we had to make up our own, travelling on this somewhat smaller road. The smaller road took us to Lockerbie. We'd attended an Esperanto congress in the town, in this hotel, during a weekend in 2011. I didn't remember this large turreted tower from last time we'd been here though. Luckily Lockerbie is only a few miles away from Dumfries, so we were soon able to get back on track. We'd visited Dumfries during our first trip around Scotland in 2010, but I didn't remember a lot about it except that we'd visited quite a lot of sites linked to Robert Burns, including possibly his grave, on some sort of walking tour which had been recommended to us by a man in the tourist information office. The town itself didn't look particularly scenic as we drove through it today, but we found a place to park down by the river and got out to stretch our legs. The river Nith flows through Dumfries and there are lots of bridges over it. We followed a path alongside the river for a while until we got to this enormous weir. We still had a couple of hours of driving to do to get to Dumbarton, so at this point we decided to cross back over the river and retrieve the car. We successfully arrived in Dumbarton in the late afternoon, having got caught up in some traffic that was heading into Glasgow. We're staying for one night in an apartment here and it was surprisingly spacious, with a large living/dining room... ...plus bedroom. This one was £72 for the night, so more expensive than Hawick. Booking.com had advertised it as having a mountain view, which I was a bit sceptical about, but it did actually turn out to be true! We didn't know a lot about Dumbarton when we booked to stay here, but Tim had read that it had a castle. Once we'd settled in to the apartment, we set out to try and find it. After a few minutes of walking, we got a glimpse of it from a Lidl car park Getting closer to it and taking a good photo without a car park in the way turned out to be more challenging. We walked for quite a long time until eventually we emerged on a road underneath the castle rock, which terminated at a grassy area overlooking what appeared to be a rather muddy beach. It turns out this is the estuary of the river Clyde. From here we found a path which led to a little park around the back of the castle. It was really quite pretty here... ...and the views along the river in the other direction were more scenic too. We were starving and had walked nearly 20 000 steps by this point, so began retracing our steps back towards the town centre in search of something to eat. Tomorrow we will be setting off across the country, towards Dundee
  8. When we got home from Narvik on 4 January, I was already counting down the days until our next holiday. Over the course of January and February, we planned a really exciting year of international travel. We were going to start off with May bank holiday trips to Monaco and Liechtenstein, aiming to cross two small countries off our list of unvisited places in Europe, before spending the August bank holiday in Luxembourg. Luxembourg was a country we had visited before, but only briefly in 2010 as part of an Esperanto event in Germany, and I have a grand total of six photos to remember it by, so I was keen to go back. I was lucky enough to be able to book two weeks off work in June for the first time in years and we planned to spend those island-hopping around the Azores. We enjoyed the Azores so much when we visited in 2018 and although we had an amazing time, we were conscious that we had only explored one of the nine islands. With two whole weeks to play with, we were hoping to visit no fewer than six this time around. I dedicated several weekends to a very complex set of bookings which including internal flights, ferries and multiple different car rentals. I then had another week off in August for which we booked flights for Latvia, planning to spend most of our time hiking in one of the national parks. That was going to be good training, because we had an amazing trip planned for my final two weeks of in September which, after flying to Croatia and having a brief stop-off in Montenegro, was going to involve hiking in the Albanian Alps. 2020 felt like it was going to be a very exciting year! And then, of course, Covid-19 happened I think I've probably spent almost as much time as I spent originally booking my holidays trying to cancel them again and get money back from various sources. We spent the weeks when we would have been in the Azores at home, but now that it's August and things are starting to open up a bit more it felt like it would be a shame to let the Latvia week go to waste. We made a rather last minute decision this week to try and book a trip to Scotland, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult. The combination of school holidays and everybody wanting to get away somewhere after having been cooped up for weeks of lockdown meant that booking.com was reporting the entire country of Scotland as being more than 90% fully booked I wanted to try and stay away from people as much as possible, which meant avoiding the larger cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh, and once those were excluded from the booking searches there was hardly anything available at all. I had pretty much given up hope of finding anything by this point, but Tim did some additional searching and eventually came up with a viable itinerary for us. This will be the third time that we've had a holiday involving driving around Scotland, but the previous two were a very long time ago. In 2010 we spent the best part of two weeks travelling along the west coast, all the way along the north coast to John O'Groats and then back down the east to Edinburgh. It was a really exciting experience, although looking back at my albums I don't seem to have taken a lot of photos. In 2011 we visited Scotland again, just for a week this time, and drove a somewhat shorter version of the same route, ultimately ending up in Lockerbie to attend the Scottish Esperanto Congress. Since 2011, all our holidays have been abroad and our only trips to Scotland have been to attend a couple of Esperanto conferences in Edinburgh or, in my case, to spend several weeks of January each year auditing on an industrial estate in a place called Larbert. So, while spending a week in Scotland wasn't quite what I expected to be doing in August 2020, it's nevertheless nice to have an opportunity to travel there again and after the year we've had, just leaving Nuneaton at all feels quite exciting The first destination on our roadtrip is Hawick, a small town in the Scottish borders which I had never heard of this time last week. Hawick is nearly a 5-hour drive from Nuneaton so we tried to make a relatively prompt start this morning, leaving home around 10.30. We certainly got more of a lie in than we would have done if we had been flying to Latvia! 5 hours is a long time to be in the car, particularly on what was quite a warm day, so we wanted to break our journey somewhere en route. Tim did some research before I got up this morning and found a National Trust place called Hudswell Woods in the Yorkshire Dales, where it looked like we would be able to park and have a bit of a walk. It was about 2.5 hours away which seemed like a good stopping point, so we decided to give it a go. I thought the roads might be really busy today, but it actually wasn't too bad in the direction we were travelling in. It took closer to 3 hours to get to Hudswell. When we did, we found the car park didn't actually belong to the National Trust so we would have had to pay for parking, except for the fact that the parking meter was broken. The National Trust seem to own the woods themselves, which we accessed by crossing a bridge over the river Swale. It was surprisingly wide for a river I've never heard of! On the far side of the river there was a notice board with some marked trail. We opted to try a 1.5 mile circular walk alongside the river, which the board warned was "strenuous" and required sturdy footwear. I didn't think the National Trust definition of strenuous would actually mean it was strenuous, although there was a mention of there being a large number of steps at some point. We looked at the map and decided to start following an uphill path, in the hope that that would ultimately result in us going down the steps rather than up them. It was pleasant to walk in the woods and definitely a lot cooler here than we had been when driving in the car up the M1. The path led us along the hillside, running parallel to the river Swale. In some places the slope above us looked very steep indeed. It was very green in the forest and despite the fact that yesterday had been a scorchingly hot day, it was still quite muddy underfoot in places. The information board had definitely been correct to recommend sturdy shoes. Eventually we reached the steps and found, to our disappointment, that we'd somehow walked in the wrong direction and we did now indeed need to climb up them. There were 230 steps in total. To start with I didn't think they were too bad... ...but every time we turned a corner there were more! The description of "strenuous" turned out to be quite apt for the walk after all. The good news was that when we finally got to the top, we found a pub It was in a beautiful location with some lovely views, and very easy to socially distance outside in the beer garden. We stopped for a quick drink, which had to become a very quick drink indeed when it unexpectedly started raining. Luckily it was only a shower and the weather had more or less dried up again as we started making our way back towards the car park. I was not a huge fan of the path back. Let's just say it was rather narrow and the drop down to the river felt very steep. At times we did have some good views back towards the nearby town of Richmond, though. We made it back to the car and had another two hours or so to drive towards Hawick. The main takeaway from this journey was how large the north of England is! I kept thinking that we must be nearly in Scotland by now and yet half an hour later we would still be driving through a seemingly neverending expanse of Northumberland. It was a very scenic journey though and eventually we made it to a viewpoint at the Scottish border From the border, it wasn't far to Hawick. We're just staying one night here, in a little flat not far from the town centre. The owner was waiting for us when we arrived and gave us some very detailed instructions about using Netflix on the TV which went completely over my head. It's a pleasant little place though, with a cosy living room... ...and a little bedroom. There's a small kitchen too, which we were surprised to find that the owners had left well stocked with biscuits and other essentials. It seems very good value at just £60 for the night. Once we'd settled in we set out again in search of food. We'd missed lunch, so finding dinner felt like a priority! On the way we may have accidentally seen the main sights of Hawick. There's a town hall, with a rather unusual turreted tower... ...and a square with a man on horseback. Food options in Hawick turned out to be limited to Wetherspoons or kebab shop/takeaways, so we went with Wetherspoons. It did seem to be very well set up for social distancing at least, with ordering on the app and all staff wearing masks. We had a seat near the doors, which were wide open for ventilation. It was quite nice to have a breeze on a day like today, but harder to see how this is going to work once the weather gets colder! Tomorrow we plan to explore anything we have missed in Hawick, before heading off to our next destination of Dumbarton.
  9. Last night was our final night in Kiruna, so we decided to go out for an evening walk to see the Christmas lights in the town centre. The big Christmas tree looked pretty in the dark... ...and Tim looked quite regal in the ice throne We walked past the display of snow sculptures. It was actually a bit easier to make our some of the shapes in the dark. Once we'd done a circuit of the town centre, we headed back to our apartment for the night. We're flying back home from Narvik tomorrow, so the main aim of today was to travel back from Sweden to Norway. Our train wasn't until the afternoon though, so we were able to have a leisurely start to the morning. We'd just finished breakfast and were considering starting to pack, when I looked out the window of our apartment in Kiruna and was amazed to get a glimpse of some polar stratospheric clouds, just like the ones we'd seen in Abisko earlier in the week! We didn't have to check out of the apartment until 11, so we quickly pulled on our warm clothes and boots and ran outside to have a look. We walked along the main road from our apartment, trying to find a place from which we would have an unobstructed view. The clouds were the most amazing colours. Tim managed to capture them more accurately by making his camera darker. We walked down a rather slippery pavement, towards the park we'd discovered yesterday. From there we had the clearest views, without any buildings in the way... ...and the clouds looked beautiful above the snowy landscape. I could have stayed and stared at them all day Unfortunately, however, we had to return to the apartment to pack up our things and check out. Our train to Narvik wasn't departing until 14.51, so once we'd successfully checked out we had some time to kill in Kiruna. As we walked back into the town centre, the sun was rising and there were some beautiful pink colours in the sky There's a small indoor shopping centre in Kiruna, so that was our first stop. It had a cafe, where we got two rather strong Americanos From there we moved on to Kiruna's English pub (bizarrely, Kiruna has an English pub called The Bishop's Arms!!), where we were able to get lunch. I had a burger, while Tim had fish and chips. It was really dark in the pub (loads of places in Sweden seem to be really badly lit!) so we then moved back to the slightly brighter cafe for another coffee and some cake It was while we were having the coffee and cake that I got a rather disturbing text from Swedish Railways about our train When Google-translated, this informed us that due to a "nature incident" the train line to Narvik was closed. Oh dear We made our way towards the station, hoping for the best. It was still really snowy everywhere but the snow was flattened down and much easier to pull our cases on than it had been the day when we arrived It was much easier walking downhill from the town to the station, as opposed to uphill from the station to the town As we got close to the station, we passed a hill with an illuminated ski run which I hadn't even noticed on the day we arrived. When we got to the station the train to Narvik was sitting on the platform, so we boarded it and hoped for the best. It departed promptly, without any announcements about the line being closed. In the absence of announcements, I checked the Swedish trains website and found a message said that the "nature incident" had now been resolved and the line was opened again. Phew!! It was a big relief that we were going to make it to our destination; I don't know whether they would have put on a rail replacement bus if the train couldn't run, but if they didn't I think it would have cost more than our life savings to take a taxi We eventually made it to Narvik only 15 minutes or so behind schedule. It looked like it had been snowing quite heavily here and there was lots of fresh snow everywhere. Pulling our suitcases up Narvik's steep streets in the fresh snow was not the most fun we've ever had! Everywhere did look beautiful in the snow though And it was actually easier to walk on this snow than on the ice which had been here when we caught the train on Sunday. As we're just staying one night in Narvik this time and departing for the airport first thing tomorrow morning, I'd booked us into a small hotel rather than re-book the Airbnb apartment we stayed in at the start of the holiday. 895 Norwegian Krone (around £78) got us this tiny room which just about has enough space for both of us and our suitcases We do have free breakfast included in the morning though (which we intend to eat as much of as possible to get our money's worth!) and from our window we can see out across the whole of Narvik. Tomorrow will be a very long day of travelling, with two flights and about 9 hours to kill in Oslo airport, which I don't think will be worthy of a blog! But we've had a fantastic holiday, exploring a completely different part of Lapland and seeing some really amazing clouds, and I think it's definitely been worth the journey
  10. There was lots of snow outside when we woke up in Kiruna this morning The house across the road from where we're staying also had some rather spectacular icicles! It had been pretty much dark when we arrived in Kiruna yesterday, so we were looking forward to seeing the town in the daylight. As we set off in the direction of the town centre, we passed some absolutely enormous piles of snow It didn't take us long to reach the town centre. We found some large snow-covered rocks... ...some pretty Christmas decorations... ...and a whole load more snow It's hard to make them out in the photos because everything is so white, but there were also some snow sculptures... ...and some ice sculptures. I really liked these presents made out of snow We didn't know a lot about Kiruna before we came here, choosing to stay here for a couple of nights mainly because it was the end of the railway line and somewhere I managed to find affordable accommodation, but it's actually a really pretty little town. With a population of around 17,000 people, it's the northernmost town in Sweden. The iron-ore mine here is apparently the largest one in the world, producing 90% of all the iron in Europe. Extraction has been going on here since around 1900 and has made Kiruna a prosperous place. However, the mine is now so extensive that it is starting to cause the town to subside The authorities have therefore decided to demolish the town centre and relocate it to a safer site, 2 miles to the east of its current location. It sounds rather dramatic, but it isn't all happening at once; buildings are being moved gradually, with the aim that the whole town centre will have been moved by 2035. The entire relocation process is being financed by the mine, with residents whose homes have to be sacrificed being compensated for 125% of the price. The most historic buildings in the town will be carefully dismantled and rebuilt in the new location. These include Kiruna's iconic wooden church, which we caught sight of while we were strolling around. The church was built in 1912 and is one of the largest wooden buildings in Sweden. Its unusual shape is because it was designed to represent the shape of a traditional Sami tent. Once we'd passed the church, we caught sight of a rather strange sight; a model rocket by the side of the road. Apparently there is a rocket research centre located outside the town. Across the road we found the entrance to the local park, marked by a large block of ice. We had a walk around the park, which was home to some unusual sculptures, like this rather cross-looking owl. There were also some really interesting photos on display of the early settlers in Kiruna. After we'd been around the park, we walked back up past the church, towards the town centre again. We found an icy throne... ...which I couldn't resist having a sit in As we rounded a corner we saw something which I really didn't expect to find in such a remote corner of the world On our way back towards the apartment, we also saw something else we didn't expect to see; a huge container by the side of the road, full of snow. A man with a digger was collecting snow... ...and depositing it in a big pile further down the road. Next thing we know, a lorry arrives with an empty container. The empty container is deposited... ...and the digger immediately starts filling it with snow. In the meantime, the lorry is picking up the full container of snow. It was so heavy that the front wheels of the lorry lifted off the ground as it was picking it up! The lorry then drove off with the snow, presumably to dispose of it somewhere outside the town. It was a really interesting insight into everyday life here; it's hard to imagine having so much snow that you need industrial machinery to remove it! It's been quite cloudy again today, but once we got back to the apartment the sky was turning a beautiful shade of blue for sunset
  11. As there didn't promise to be a lot happening in Abisko for New Year's Eve, we were booked to visit the nearby Aurora Sky Station for the evening. This is a mountain-top viewing platform, located on a mountain near to Abisko Turiststation, and it's supposed to be a great place for seeing the northern lights. The only way up is via a chairlift and, unfortunately, Abisko had been experiencing strong winds all day, which meant that it wasn't safe for the chairlift to run. A bit disappointing, but I guess that just means we'll have to come back another year and try again On nights when the chairlift is cancelled, there is an alternative programme at Abisko Turiststation instead, so we were picked up by a shuttle service to participate in that instead. We arrived at the Turiststation at around 20.50. The activities weren't due to start until 21.00 and the number of layers we were wearing meant that it was really hot inside, so we decided to wait outside for a while. The Christmas decorations were pretty At 9pm we were ticked off the list and then invited into what I can only describe as a large wooden teepee, with a big fire burning in the middle. We sat here briefly, before being offered the opportunity to go on a northern lights walking tour. We didn't ultimately end up seeing any northern lights, but it was still a fun experience Our guide led us down a series of snowy paths for about half an hour, towards the shore of lake Torneträsk. We definitely wouldn't have walked so far in the dark on our own. The sky wasn't as cloudy as it had been earlier in the day and so we were able to see an amazing quantity of stars, although unfortunately it wasn't possible to capture the night sky with our phone cameras. Eventually we walked back up to the teepee, where there was free gluehwein and hot chocolate on offer There was also dried reindeer meat, but I gave that a miss It was definitely a different way to spend New Year's Eve When we woke up in Abisko this morning, we were in the middle of a blizzard. We were travelling to Kiruna today, but our train wasn't until 12.26, so we had time for a final walk around the village in the snow And there was a lot of snow; it didn't take long until we were both covered in it It was really beautiful to be walking through the snow on New Year's Day though We needed to check out of our hostel around 11, so after a while we had to turn around and go retrieve our suitcases. The station is only a few hundred metres from where we were staying, but it turns out that pulling your suitcase through fresh snow is hard work! We had a while to wait at the station for our train. The platform looked deserted in the snow. The trains in Sweden appear to run on time even during blizzards though There was a nice heated waiting room at the station but some of us were a bit warm after pulling our suitcases through the snow The train arrived promptly and soon we were on a journey through a snowy wilderness. It was snowing so much that a lot of the view was obscured, but every so often I could make out the shapes of mountains in the distance. It's hard to make out in the pictures, but for a while the train travelled alongside lake Torneträsk. As we moved away from the lake and got closer towards Kiruna, the weather seemed to improve a bit and the views became a bit clearer Soon we arrived in Kiruna itself. It looked like there were lots of wagons of iron ore here, waiting to go to Narvik, and in the background behind them we could just make out what I'm guessing is the mine. The station is a couple of kilometres outside the main centre of Kiruna, so there was more snow to pull our cases through. Everywhere looked really pretty though We weren't able to check into our apartment until 3pm, so we had a bit of time to explore. Everything was closed up today for New Year's Day, but we found a main street with a supermarket without too many difficulties Plus we got to see some really beautiful colours in the sunset. Then it was time to check in. This is definitely the most spacious accommodation of our trip In addition to a living room, we have a bedroom... ...and a huge kitchen/dining area. We were actually really lucky with the hostel in Abisko and were the only people staying in it for the past two nights, but it's definitely nice to have a bit more space to spread out this evening
  12. We went out for a walk to the lake in the dark last night, but it was so cloudy that we couldn't even see any stars, never mind the northern lights We were outside for about an hour or so, during which time we walked down to the lakeside and then along part of the path towards Abisko Turiststation. It was snowing all the time, and the snowflakes looked really pretty in the darkness. The unusual street lights which we'd seen earlier in the day were actually really good at night, projecting light downwards so that we could see the path, and not causing lots of light pollution. We might not have seen the northern lights last night, but when we stepped outside our apartment this morning we saw something even rarer in the sky. These, we later learned, were polar stratospheric clouds, and we'd never seen anything quite like them before. Our phone cameras weren't able to capture all the colours, but they were really beautiful; all the colours of the rainbow We were really lucky to have seen them, because the rest of the sky was quite overcast today. As we walked towards Abisko Turiststation, the top of the mountain was obscured by the clouds again. Although, when we turned around once more, we did get another glimpse of the special clouds You can perhaps get a slightly better impression of the rainbow colours in this photo We didn't have a firm plan for the day, but we were hoping to explore a bit more of the national park. We headed off through the wooden walkway again... ...and this time followed a different trail, which we hoped would give us a view of the canyon from the opposite direction. When we'd been at the canyon viewpoint yesterday, we'd seen a bridge across the canyon lower down but hadn't been able to figure out how to get to it. Today we found it and were able to stand in the middle, looking down the length of the canyon. The views were really beautiful There weren't many other people around today either, so we had them pretty much to ourselves We did meet two other people as we were on our way back up from the bridge to the viewpoint we visited yesterday though. The woman started speaking to us in Swedish, before explaining to us in English that there were two moose up ahead! They were quite a distance away and camouflaged by trees, so you're going to have to play spot the moose with the photos It was really cool to see them and they were absolutely huge animals! Once the moose had moved on, we made a quick stop at the viewpoint where we'd taken photos yesterday, to have another look at the ice. Then we followed a track which took us under the main road, then alongside the river which flows through into the canyon. The views of the canyon were really impressive on this side too... ...and we could see the power of the water beneath the ice. The wind was really strong by this point and it was snowing quite heavily. We didn't want to walk too far, so we decided to follow one of the marked trails through the woods for a while, and then turn back. There does seem to be quite a good system of marked walking trails here, although I haven't been able to figure out where to get a proper map that shows where they all go. They are numbered and colour-coded though, with strips of colour wrapped around the trees so that you know you're going in the right direction. We couldn't exactly see polar clouds at this point... ...but there were still some pretty colours in the sky. The trees were really pretty too... ...although it's still surprising me how different the trees are here to in Finnish Lapland. Once we'd walked for half an hour or so, we turned around and headed back the way we'd come. On the way back, there was just time for a final look at the canyon It was already starting to look like twilight as we walked back towards our apartment. When we got as far as the station, we were passed by another one of the iron ore trains to Narvik. From there it wasn't far to walk to Abisko's shop, where we wanted to stock up on supplies. We're travelling to Kiruna tomorrow, but with it being New Year's Day we're not sure whether any shops will be open when we get there. One of the things we needed to stock up on was chocolate; luckily we managed to find some Ritter Sport among all these sweets Then it was back to the apartment for some much-needed food and a rest before we head out again this evening for another attempt to see the northern lights. Not sure we're going to have any success, as I think it's still going to be overcast, but we can't complain when we have seen such beautiful clouds today
  13. Having arrived in Abisko in the dark last night, we were excited to see it in the daylight this morning As expected, it's quite a small place, with a handful of buildings along a main street. The hostel we're staying in is quite small (only four rooms), but we passed a couple of bigger guesthouses as we walked along the street. One of the attractions of Abisko is that it is situated on Lake Torneträsk and we soon found a path which led us down to the lake shore. As you can probably tell from the photo, it was snowing lightly and so we acquired a sprinkling of snow on us as we walked along As we approached some boat houses and covered up boats, we knew we were getting close to the lake. Lake Torneträsk is the sixth biggest lake in Sweden, with a surface area of 130 square miles. We saw a group of people with sticks getting ready to walk on the ice. It didn't look 100% frozen to us though or, at least, the ice wasn't completely covered in snow like the frozen lake we have walked on in the past in Finland, so we didn't fancy standing on it. We got close to the edge though and it was really pretty We enjoyed the views of the lake for a while and then walked back up towards the village. In the distance we could see the tall building of the railway station, where we had arrived yesterday evening. We were looking for a path which would take us to the settlement of Abisko Turiststation, which we passed through on the train yesterday shortly before we arrived here. There were no signs at first, but we followed a small road past these houses in what seemed like the correct general direction. The road led us up towards the railway line, where we were just on time to see a passenger train on its way to Narvik. Shortly after here we saw a sign pointing towards the Abisko National Park, which is what we were looking for. It was still snowing quite heavily at this point. We followed a snowy path, which was initially lit by normal street lamps. As we progressed further along it, it was lit by these smaller, more tasteful lamps instead. It's only about 2km from where we're staying to the national park. One thing which struck us as we followed the path was how different the trees are to Finnish Lapland. Finland is full of conifers, whereas the trees here all seemed to be deciduous. We also realised after a while that we had a view of the frozen lake in the distance Before too long we passed a sign which indicated that we were getting close to our destination. There's supposed to be a big mountain here with a chairlift, but the weather was so cloudy that we could barely make out the base of it. It had more or less stopped snowing now, but I had accumulated rather a lot of snow in my hair Abisko is the start of the Kungsleden hiking trail, which runs from here for 440 km to a place called Hemavan. This wooden construction marks the beginning of the trail. We certainly weren't going to walk that far, but we did want to do a little walk to see a frozen canyon which I'd read about online. We followed a signposted trail along the side of the canyon, at first not able to get much of a view. Soon we were able to look down and see water below us... ...and then the view opened up and we were able to see down the length of the whole canyon. The best views were yet to come though As we rounded a corner, we were able to see down towards a pool of water which definitely wasn't going to freeze any time soon, because we could see fast water flowing into it from behind the rocks. We could also see a huge block of frozen ice which a group of people were attempting to climb Definitely not a winter activity that we'll be attempting! We walked further along and came to another viewing platform. From here we had an amazing view of the icy canyon... ...and of the people trying to climb the ice wall! It was a really beautiful place We followed the path a little further, but the walk didn't seem to be circular so in the end we had to turn around and come back. The weather had begun to clear up a bit now though and by the time we'd retraced our steps, the cloud had moved enough for us to see the mountain which had been completely obscured when we'd arrived. As we turned to walk back to the village of Abisko, we realised we could also now see further out across the lake... ...and it most definitely was not completely frozen We're rather glad we didn't decide to try walking on it now We made it back to Abisko while it was still daylight. We decided to explore the local shop, which is situated with a petrol station beside the main highway which passes through the village. I had been a bit worried about this in advance, because when I'd googled the name of the shop (Godisfabriken) it seemed to be primarily a sweet shop. We'd brought a supply of our own pasta and cup-a-soups with us in our suitcases just in case it wasn't possible to buy any savoury food here But, luckily, that turned out not to be a problem; although half of the shop was indeed given over to an enormous display of pick and mix, the other half was fitted out more like a normal supermarket and so we were able to buy some pizza, as well as ingredients for a bolognese Once we got back to the hostel with our provisions, we realised that the view had now cleared enough for us to be able to see the blue water of the lake from outside our door. It's been a really fun day, and although I think it will probably be too cloudy tonight for us to see any northern lights, we're going to try going out for a walk down to (but not onto!) the lake in the dark later
  14. One of the main things which had convinced me to book flights to Narvik earlier in the year was the fact that it is the terminus station for a railway line known as the Ofotbanen. The train line was built between Sweden and the Norwegian coast in the late 19th century, to enable iron ore being mined in the Swedish town of Kiruna to be transported to the ice-free port of Narvik. Iron ore is still transported on the line today, but there are also two passenger trains per day which run between Norway and Sweden. This means that flying to Narvik is actually quite an easy way to get to Swedish Lapland. The journey itself is supposed to be really scenic, most notably between Narvik and a station called Riksgränsen, which is located at the Swedish border. We'd therefore decided to catch the first train of the day, to ensure that we saw the scenery in daylight When I opened the curtains in Narvik this morning, I saw to my surprise that it was raining The rain had stopped by the time we'd packed up and checked out of the apartment, but it had interesting consequences for the condition of the roads. It was really hard to tell which bits of the road were wet and slushy and which bits were more icy and slippery. Luckily our Yaktrax seem able to cope with all surfaces and we made it to the station without falling over! I'd already bought the tickets in advance online and we had reserved seats, so all we needed to do was wait on the platform for the train to arrive. There were actually some nice views of the fjord from the platform. The train was due to depart at 10.48 and it arrived promptly. There were some groups of Chinese tourists, but overall it wasn't too busy and we were soon on our way towards Sweden As the train pulled out of Narvik, we got a view of a bridge across the fjord which I think we crossed on the airport bus in the dark the night when we arrived. By chance we were sitting on the best side of the train for views The photos are all a bit blurry as they were taken through the glass of the train window, but we travelled along the fjord for miles. As we got further on, it became increasingly narrow... ...until eventually we got close to the end of it. By this stage, the scenery was becoming increasingly mountainous. Finally we passed the end of the fjord. The train took us right across the top of it... ...and then we were properly inland. On the sides of some of the mountains I could see frozen streams. We were getting close to the Swedish border now. We had decided to get off the train at the border station of Riksgränsen, where we were hoping to get lunch and kill some time before catching the second train of the day on to Abisko. We could have stayed on this current train all the way to Abisko, but we would have ended up getting there three hours before we were able to check into our accommodation and, as research suggests that there aren't very many amenities in Abisko (a village with a population of 85 people), that didn't feel like a good plan. Having researched various destinations along the route, Riksgränsen had sounded the most promising place in terms of restaurants and cafes. The guidebook had described it as Sweden's best ski resort and recommended it as a day trip from Narvik. First impressions when we got off the train in Riksgränsen were that it looked a bit small. It was scenic though, with lots of snowy hills. And we were now in Sweden, which was exciting We started walking down to explore the village. Google maps suggested that there would be a restaurant up this road but, when we got there, we found it was all closed up. Trying a different direction, we passed this bus shelter completely buried in the snow There didn't seem to be very many people in Riksgränsen and so far we hadn't seen a single restaurant which was open. We did find a shop, and Tim asked the staff for directions to a cafe. They told us that everywhere in Riksgränsen was closed and that the nearest open establishment was in a neighbouring village They described the village as being 15 minutes away, but the only way to get there was to walk down the main road which they said was a) slippery and b) dangerous because lorries drive along it quite fast. When I looked it up on Google maps, Google suggested it would be more like a 40 minute walk than 15 minutes anyway, so we quickly ruled that out as an option. We could see ski lifts on the hills above the village, but those weren't operational either. The girls in the shop explained that the skiing season hasn't started here yet because, despite the fact that there's lots of snow, there isn't enough daylight. The fact that a ski resort would be closed in December had never occurred to us when we booked this trip We didn't have any options but to walk back up to the train station and wait for our train to Abisko. The station didn't exactly have a lot of facilities. We were able to buy bread, cake and crisps at the shop and have a picnic lunch in the snow; not quite what we'd been hoping for for lunch, but better than nothing We also had some wine in Tim's suitcase (which we'd brought with us because Abisko is too small to have its own alcohol shop) and that livened the picnic up We were lucky that it wasn't actually very cold today; I think the temperature must have been above zero, because we could hear snow melting from the station roof. It was warm enough for Tim to take his coat off anyway I suppose it's fair enough that they don't ski here in December, because there really wasn't a lot of daylight. By 2pm, it was already looking like twilight. By the time Tim went down to the shop again to get some more supplies, it was properly dark. Everywhere looked very pretty in the darkness though. By 3pm it may as well have been the middle of the night! Every so often while we were waiting, freight trains came past bearing the logo of LKAB, the Swedish mining company. The trains were enormous, with so many carriages that it took several minutes for each one to pass. Needless to say, we were incredibly pleased when it was finally time for our train to arrive. This train had sleeper carriages which were continuing on all the way to Stockholm. Perhaps that's an idea for a future holiday! Our journey to Abisko only took around 45 minutes. There are actually two stations in Abisko - Abisko Turiststation, which is the site of a youth hostel, and Abisko Östra, which is the station for the main village. We were getting off at Abisko Östra. Abisko is a very popular winter destination and so, when I was booking accommodation here, options were extremely limited. There were no available apartments or hotels, so I booked us into a small hostel where we would have a bedroom to ourselves, plus use of a shared kitchen and bathrooms. The prices here are reminiscent of Icelandic prices, and so our stay here is costing £98 per night. As you can see from the photo, the room we're getting for that price is a bit on the small size It's warm and comfy though and all the shared facilities seem clean. Best of all, the owners messaged me days in advance with the check-in instructions, including the code we needed to get our keys out of the key safe, so Abisko is already winning over Narvik in that respect! The area around Abisko is supposed to be beautiful, so we are looking forward to exploring it in the daylight tomorrow
  15. We woke up feeling rested this morning and a bit more enthusiastic about exploring Narvik than when we'd arrived last night It was still dark at around 9am when Tim set out to find a shop to buy breakfast. It seems like things are slow to get started in Narvik on Saturday mornings, so it took a while before he found one that was open. By the time he'd returned and we'd had breakfast and were ready to set out again, things had got a bit brighter. Our apartment is in this red wooden house. From our windows we can see this big mountain, with its illuminated ski slope. Hopefully this picture also helps to illustrate how steep the side streets in Narvik are! We were prepared for the slippery pavements today though and had our Yaktrax on, which made it a lot easier to walk. Our first stop was the local shopping centre, because we wanted to track down Narvik's branch of Vinmonopolet, the state-owned alcohol store. We knew from our previous visit to Norway in 2013 that these shops have restricted opening hours and are often closed at times you might expect to be able to buy alcohol, like on weekends or bank holidays. The good news was that when we found the shop, we were able to establish that it was open until 15.00 on Saturdays, so we knew we'd be able to return later and buy some wine It was worth going into the shopping centre anyway to see the Christmas decorations We headed outside again, walking along the town's main street. The mountain we can see from our apartment looms across the whole town. There aren't a lot of sights in the town centre, but there are a few strange landmarks like this huge pyramid. We realised that we could see down towards the bus station, from where we'd started our uphill climb last night. In the distance, we could also see Narvik's main church. The town feels quite large, but it only has a population of 14,000 people so it's actually pretty small by UK standards. Our aim was to walk downhill, towards the harbour area, in the hope of getting some views of the fjord. It wasn't long before we got our first glimpse of the sea! As we walked towards the water, we passed this unusual building. Once we got to the far side of it, we realised that it was a church The further we walked, the more impressive the views became. We began to get better views out across the water. In places the side of the road was quite rocky and we passed some incredible icicles. I don't think I've ever seen icicles this big before Eventually we made it down to the harbour. Despite the fact that it is located very far north (the furthest north we've ever been) Narvik is warmed by the Gulf Stream and so the harbour here is always ice-free. The town grew up here in the 19th century, when a Swedish mining company realised that they could use the harbour to export their iron ore. A significant amount of iron ore is still shipped from here today, and so although some of the views of the fjord were stunning, overall Narvik does have a bit of an industrial feel to it. The ice-free nature of the fjord had unfortunate consequences for Narvik during the Second World War, because the harbour was of strategic importance to both sides. It's hard to imagine when it all looks so peaceful today, but two naval battles were fought in the fjord in 1940. There is a war museum in the Narvik but we didn't go. The views were starting to get obscured by clouds at this point and light snow was falling, so we decided we'd walked far enough around the harbour and turned around to climb back up towards the town centre. The Christmas lights in the main square were pretty. Walking along the main street in the opposite direction from before, we came across this signpost showing the distance between Narvik and various destinations. It turns out we're slightly closer to St Petersburg than we are to Oslo The daylight is quite limited here and before it got dark, we wanted to locate the train station from where we will be catching a train to Abisko in Sweden tomorrow. It turns out that it's actually not that far from our apartment. Walking towards it, we had some more beautiful views of the mountain. We were hungry by this stage, so we walked back towards the shopping centre, where we'd spotted a pizza restaurant earlier. I went for a tropical pizza, which unusually featured pineapple and spicy pepperoni, while Tim had a chicken burger. The food was filling, and not too expensive; we stuck with the free tap water again, so just had the main courses, and the bill came to just under £30. We weren't in the restaurant for long, but by the time we stepped outside, darkness had fallen. Walking back up towards our apartment, we could see the ski run illuminated again. Having explored Narvik today, the apartment is actually in a good location, not far from the train station or the main street. It was a bit of an unpleasant surprise last night to have to do so much walking uphill with our cases (and then not to be able to get into the apartment), but that aside it hasn't been a bad place to stay We're spending tomorrow travelling to Sweden, where we'll be staying in less glamorous accommodation, which will hopefully be compensated for by some amazing scenery!
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