"Crash, clang, ding-ding, BANG!"
The incessant din, hurtling up from the road below our mountainside homestay, bounced off the eaves into the bedroom, waking me from a deep sleep. Jamie and I dragged our sluggish bodies downstairs for breakfast.
Darjeeling, like most places in the Himalaya, is a Buddhist community. And like the rest of India there is a parade, festival or celebration nearly every week. Today a colourful banner declared, “2600 years of the enlightenment of Lord Buddha".
We gobbled up our toast and drained cups of sweet masala tea before heading out to join the procession.
Orchestral manoeuvres in the alleys
Maroon and orange-clad monks banged drums and cymbals with devoted concentration, or blew as hard as possible on a variety of horns, without varying the note. One instrument was around ten feet long: the business end held by the 'blower' (to call him a musician would be a stretch too far), while at the other end a second man supported two of these gigantic musical pipes under his arms.
As one band receded with its crowd of followers, the next little group arrived. The percussion sections beat out an impressive rhythm, but I tried in vain to identify a melody among the single-layered notes blasting out from the wind sections. To add to the cacophony a few high-spirited young men set off deafening fire crackers down dark, side alleys.
Not all blessings are disguised
Some of the monks carried ornate and colourful statues of Buddha in palanquins. Arranged across two parallel bars they held Him on their shoulders. Devotees, with serious expressions or a surreptitious smile, lowered their heads and threaded their way underneath the icons between the monks.
Towards the end we broke through the throng and joined the worshippers. It was a happy occasion, and away from the bands people walked in silence or chatted quietly as they slowly followed behind the monks. We walked side by side with tiny, ancient crones in tribal dress; young mothers in tight western clothes, holding babies; groups of schoolgirls; bent grandfathers; brightly coloured, swaddled toddlers; and wiry mountain men.
Some devotees carried rectangular prayer boxes brought from the temples. with which they blessed the crowd by touching the boxes to bowed heads. I was blessed, but to the amusement of my neighbours the sharp wooden corners crashing onto my crown made me yelp. Someone was listening because my prayers to not end up bleeding and bruised were answered.
Sweet smelling smoke
The procession lasted until lunchtime and took us on a thorough tour of the eastern 'Queen of Hills'. At small stations along the route we were offered water and orange juice to keep up our strength.
We passed quietly along steep, narrow passages in the town centre where women in open windows, or standing on balconies, gently fanned plumes of incense through clothes lines strung with washing. Snatches of music drifted towards us.
The fragrant smoke filtered downwards in the chilly mountain air, mingling with the damp, earthy smell of this magical autumnal day.
For more tales have a look at www.lizcleere.com
Darjeeling. Take a jeep from New Jalpaiguri station in West Bengal. Expect to pay around 150 to 200 INR per seat, but the space allocated for a 'seat' is tiny. Buy two seats per person, better still rent the whole bench seat behind the driver (the equivalent of four seats).
You could take Unesco World Heritage 'Toy' Train all the way, but it's a long, slow boot. Better to take an excursion on the train from Darjeeling to Ghoom for a morning.
Gorgeous Oberstdorf is in the Alpine southern toe of Germany and the cable car ride up to the mountain top gives amazing views across the Alps. Down below are lovely waymarked walks by glacial rivers or through the stunning Breitach Gorge. The town itself is a relaxed and reasonably-priced tourist spot, popular with German holidaymakers.
Festival de la Sidra Natural de Gijón (Festival of Natural Cider – Gijón, Asturias, northern Spain)
Some might call Asturias the cider capital of the world. Certainly more cider is drunk per capita in that region of Spain than in any other similar-sized location in the world. It is drunk young and fresh, and all drinkers, from the old blue-overalled farmers in the mountains to young tattooed crowds in the city squares, follow the same ritual of pouring a quarter-glass of cider from a raised arm. This, as they say, ‘opens’ the drink, making it fizz and sparkle with rich appleness and as you drink down your ‘culín’.
To celebrate this art, the city of Gijón celebrates every August since 1991, on the beach of its wide sandy bay, the quirkily-named Guinness Record for Simultaneous Cider Pouring. This year, 7293 people poured over 70,000 litres of cider in unison. Anyone can participate and the cider is free. This is accompanied by the bustling Market of Cider and the Apple, with abundant free tastings of cider and food.
In a country of tomato fights, giant paellas and bull-running, one can only expect the same exuberance and love of plenty from this small and under-explored mountainous, Celtic and cider-fuelled region of the north.
And where else could you possibly have over 7000 cider pourers?
Gijón is short bus-ride from Asturias airport, with flights from Stansted, and is bristling with hotels and pensiones, and in the surrounding hills and mountains it is easy to rent casas rurales.
Google map: tinyurl.com/2f9sctf
Skakavac Waterfall is the highest waterfall in Balkans (98m), and is only 12km from Sarajevo.
It is the perfect opportunity for a day hike. Start by taking public transport (Minibus 69, from Sutjeska Street) then it's an easy hike for about two and a half hours.
Just follow the main road and signs saying Skakavac and enjoy the beautiful forests, views, clean water, and the Waterfall at the end.
A beautiful little glacial lake at 7,000ft that sits below Monte Civetta. Its surrounded by dramatic rock edges and there's a welcome cool breeze when it is accessible in the summer months. The gradient from Palafavera, just north of Pecol is fairly steep, although you can take a ski lift almost half way to the top.
Coldai is along the path of the Alta Via 1 trek through the heart of the Dolomites. You pass Refugio Sonino along the way, where you can get food and a bed for the night if needed.
Refugio Tissi further along is also a great place to stay. But the walk up to the lake and back down could be a day trip from either Palafavera or from Alleghe on the other side of the valley.
The views of and from Lago Coldai are spectacular and the lake is a welcome rest spot, or bathing spot seemingly, if you are one of several eccentric Spanish ladies.
Here are some useful sites: www.infodolomiti.it/dolomiti.990002264-1.run
This site tells you how to get there: www.gpsies.com/map.do?fileId=jbiurkrubhpkdpbn&name=Palafavera-Lago+Coldai
You can buy Tabacco maps with distances and times from a travel shop in Italy
The new Malcesine - Mount Baldo cableway stands out from the very first glance, thanks to the futuristic forms of its stations. These are buildings with clean architectural lines, where steel, aluminium, glass and stone have been combined to enhance the light, transparent interiors and to blend harmoniously with their outdoor surroundings.
The cableway is divided into two sections: the first, Malcesine - San Michele is 1,512 m in length and covers a difference in height of 463m; the second, San Michele - Mount Baldo is 2,813 m in length and covers a difference in height of 1,187 m.
The most important new feature of this cableway, and one that makes it totally unique throughout the world, is the cabin on the second section, which rotates on itself to give passengers a 360° view, as well as the sensation that they are flying. The capacity is 600 persons per hour, with cabins for 45 and 80 people. The cableway system is able to operate in harsh weather conditions as well as at night.
I few hours hike up the stunning Gorges de Tavignano from Corte will bring you to this remote refuge at 1166m altitude, where there are dorms or shady camping spots by the river.
The refuge has basic catering facilities, and most importantly, a stock of cold Corsica Cola or Pietra beer after a hot morning's hike. A very peaceful site with little to disturb you except the occasional clanging of a cowbell or the yapping of the refuge's resident puppies.
It's a perfect spot to chill out for the day, lazing on riverside rocks and taking a dip in the mountain stream, before continuing towards the Lac de Nino and onto the GR20, or back towards Corte down a parallel valley.
Trains stop at the railway station in Corte. Pick up the trail behind the citadel, at the bottom of rue col-Feracci. Follow the orange paint flashes marking the long distance Mare a Mare Nord footpath.
You don't need a car to get deep into the Alps during summer. Getting to Aosta from any of the airports in Northern Italy is a doddle on the train, and there's a great bus service that will take you up to Cogne. From there, walk or get the local bus to Valnontey for a great base for spectacular single or multi-day walks. Stay at La Barme for hearty, traditional evening meals.
www.trenitalia.com for train times to Aosta.
www.savda.it/orari_tariffe.htm for buses from Aosta to Cogne
www.hotellabarme.com - Hotel La Barme
Cicerone guide Walking in Italy's Gran Paradiso by Gillian Price has loads of great walks in.
As you wind your way up into Italy's Sibillini Mountains, between Le Marche and Umbria, you will come across this dazzling tourquoise lake with its dramatic Mountain views.
If you arrive early in the morning you are likely to see boar and deer sipping from the shallow waters but as the heat of the day arrives you will be unable to resist the urge to dive in and sample a swim in the crystal clear pools.
In fact, if you take a snorkel and mask you can even view the medieval village and its church that was submerged during the last century.
There are also a number of beach areas one with a bar, a gelateria selling home made ice creams and a lakeside village with an osteria and pizzeria.
There are many marked walks nearby that take you around the lake, or high up onto the peaks and ridges of this dramatic part of the Italian Appenines. Great for building up a sweat before that wild swim!
San Lorenzo al lago, Macerata, Le Marche, Italy
We just got back form our Snowboarding holiday in Chamonix which we booked with Arctic Beaver. We had a great time and just wanted to thank the guys for all the hard work they put in to make our holiday so special. They organised everything from the transfers, ski hire, catering and passes.
Will definitely come back.
It's a hostel for hiker and climbers near Soto de Sajambre in the Picos de Europa. You can only get there by foot - it's about an hour from the nearest village. Right in the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park with has some of the most stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It's set beside some mountain pastures and in between centuries old beech and oak woodland. The facilities are simple - shared dormitories and probably best to take your own food but definitely worth it as the views are out of this world.
For the location: maps.google.com/?q=43.166046,-5.005045
For the views: www.mallorcaweb.net/estebanmk/SantaCastilla/SantaCastilla002.jpg
We had a thoroughly enjoyable week at this attractive townhouse in the historic heart of Lanciano, Abruzzo. If you want an authentic Italian getaway then this is the place for you. Lanciano is centrally located for both the beach and the mountains and has plenty of bars, restauraunts and shops to entertain too. We had the most blissful week eating breakfast on the roof terrace overlooking the town, pottering about the alleyways and eating at the most authentic (and cheap) trattorias in town. There are a wealth of beaches and coves only a 15 minute drive away and yet we could be up in the mountains in only half an hour. The house is really well equipped and with lots of much appreciated touches such as wine and water in the fridge and the basics for our first meal should we have needed it. The owner took her time to meet up with and give us a quick guided tour of the town which really helped save time on the first day and were always on hand if we needed more information about what to see and do. This area is virtually unspoilt by tourism and the people genuine, warm and friendly. We will be back soon.
The best bar/nightclub in town! Yes, it is a little far from the centre, but it isn't called the Grail for nothing; top tunes, champagne, light-up dancefloor, unusually high amounts of decent seating, free clockroom and the all-important stripper poles make it the perfect place to party hard apres-ski style!
I have several tips for 'Brevs'! We stayed in Chalet Chardon which I highly recommend - the atmosphere is really friendly, everyone eats together and the bar underneath (The Underground) makes for much late night chalet bonding ... for better or worse! There's an amazing bit of off piste at the top of Grand Huit chairlift - trek up the steep slope opposite and over the other side is pristine powdery magic. And if that isn't enough at the bottom of the piste leading into Les Breviere there's an amazing mulled wine stall - a few euros gets you a mug full and a fast track to après ski table dancing! Oh and one last thing - if you are like me and not the best at the coordination thing, bum pads come in handy!
Chalet chardon - www.chaletchardons.com/skiing-resort.html
The Underground bar is below Chardon.
Mulled wine - from outside L'Armailly restaurant.
Bum pads - available in most good ski shops such as Snow and Rock.
For such an urban country, Japan's many mountain ranges remain unspoilt and relatively unknown other than to numerous enthusiastic and fit Japanese walkers of all ages. The North Alps are as good as the European ones and once away from the busy valley entrance lodges, exhilaratingly empty, and stunningly scenic. A network of dozens of simple traditional mountain huts provide ridge-top overnight accommodation in dormitories which are decidedly cosy for taller people and a welcome evening meal of meat, fresh vegetables, rice, and mizo soup. Enormous bento box lunches see you through the days. With snow on the peaks much of the year, the summer season is quite short but the ridges are covered with alpine flowers, miniature love lies bleeding, stunted birch, pine and rhodedendron woods, and marmots. Autumn colours come early. Numerous trails are signed and there are plenty of routes for a few days to a couple of weeks. The Kamikochi Valley is a good place to start with afew hours walk up to many peaks at around 3000m. Booking accomodation which in summer is necessary will be easier if you speak Japanese or have a friend who does. Water is scarce high up, so treat yourself in a hotel with onsen baths when you descend.
Central North Honshu, a half days drive north of Kanazawa.
Vallorcine is simply our favorite refuge. We just bought a property in a brand new ski residence with swimming pool called 'L'Ours Blue'. My wife and I go shopping and dining in Chamonix by train. Access to the slopes is also very convenient as we have direct access to brand new lifts up to La Balme ski area. We also have access to the entire Mont blanc domain by train for free! Vallorcine has always been very quiet but it is slightly changing.
We would recommend this beautiful village to anyone who seeks nature at its purest,summer and winter sport activities as well as proximity to airport and shops. Try it this winter!
Up the valley from Chamonix
A great walk with everything: country lanes, steep ascents, fantastic views from the top of the Ingleborough, a pub for lunch halfway, and a spectacular finale over Twistleton Scars and down the waterfall walks.
30 miles from Skipton on A65 towards M6, park at Ingelton
Guide to walk at www.seanliquorish.co.uk/blog/?p=14
A wonderful ristorante and wine bar in a 15th century building, complete with vaulted ceilings, in the Centro Storico of Sarnano, near to the Sibillini Mountains National Park in Italy's Le Marche region. They offer you a choice of seven house wines at giveaway prices (we settled on an aged Rosso Piceno) and have a choice of set menu, at an amazing €13, or a la carte. The food is all sourced locally and consists of antipastis of selected meats and cheeses, roasted stuffed vegetables, pasta made with local truffles, wild mushrooms and vegetables, wonderful grilled meats and sweets.
Via Mazzini in the Centro Storico at Sarnano, Marche, Italy
If you are visiting le Marche and fancy a real adrenaline rush and the most incredible views of the region, then head up to the Scoula di Volo (flying school) above Sarnano. They teach hangliding and parascending and launch from a wonderful meadow at about 1500metres. You can fly tandem with an instructor for €60. One of our crowd experienced a flight over a golden eagle exploiting the same thermal below them and didn't even have to pay extra! For stylish accommodation in the area try www.villasanraffaello.com
Near San Liberato Monastery 5km from Sarnano, Macerata, Marche
Not exactly in Barcelona, but nevertheless a fantastic day trip, the monastery of Montserrat is absolutely magnificent.
First and foremost: the landscape. You can see it coming from a mile off; weird bulbous rock formations bulging out.
On the way up, there's a fantastic Romanesque chapel with amazing frescoes, and the whole area is riddled with hermits' caves.
The church itself is vast, 1000m above sea-level, and (oddly) reassuringly hideous in scale and detail.
Still, it's a mighty impressive spectacle and the surrounding countryside is simply breathtaking.
90 minutes from Barcelona (near Lleida)
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