Cami De Ronda

My home town sits broadly as far from the sea as anywhere in the UK and visits to the coast are a treasured rarity. In contrast my rented Costa Brava hilltop apartment overlooks the Mediterranean so it’s natural that I am drawn towards it on a regular basis throughout my stay. At one point out of principle I dragged a camping chair to the beach and plonked myself down in the sand with a book, but after 20 minutes of shivering beneath a beach towel I ticked that one off and resolved to find other ways to enjoy the coastline in these cooler months.

The Cami De Ronda coastal footpath may originally have been conceived to help detect smugglers but today it opens up stunning scenery to ramblers, joggers and dog walkers, if you don’t mind negotiating the ascents and descents that define this stretch of rocky coastline.

One of the better maintained sections of the coastal path

It’s not entirely clear where the path officially begins or ends although I believe it stretches at least from Blanes up to the French border far to the north. My exploration started in the cliffs south of Sant Feliu de Guixols. A hillside settlement I expected to be quiet turned out to have its own little community including a hotel, posh school and some multi-million euro grand designs overlooking the sea. There wasn’t any access to the water along this stretch aside from a rickety path down to the cliff bottom. I saw a couple of scuba divers here flapping precariously down to the water, one with a harpoon gun. Go figure.

Grand Designs

The path south evaporated so it’s fortunate I was walking north towards Sant Feliu. You can only envy the families with houses that cling to the coastal road into town. Only one patio was occupied on this sunny day. Three folk were enjoying the views over a glass of wine. They were English. Most houses inevitably were shuttered up, their owners maybe returning for the odd weekend break before the height of summer next year.

The views!

A breakwater of colossal stone blocks protects the sandy crescent of Sant Feliu. One side is preserved for swimmers, paddle boarders and kayakers. An array of expensive vessels moored up in the harbour on the opposing side. This view would barely be recognised by sailors of yore who set sail for the Napoleonic wars on ships crafted in this bay.

A promenade divides the beach from a tree lined pedestrian boulevard where a weekly Sunday market draws in many hundreds of shoppers. I love this stretch of path because there is always something going on. Kids play beach volleyball, Fisherman cast out and wait patiently. Couples sit together on benches sipping coffee gazing out to sea. Elderly folk congregate, watching all of the above while silently judging. My kind of people.

Beachball

The path curls out over the harbour and up into the hill of Sant Pol beyond some desirable villas, cliff top apartments and a few hotels. The hotels are mostly empty while the apartments look to be semi occupied. The views remain incredible thanks to the ever changing light that re-imagines the sea through a kaleidoscope of colours over the course of a day. The ubiquitous pine trees end abruptly where the red rocks plummet down to the ocean. It’s all rather intoxicating.

Worth the climb

Beyond the headland the high class beach of Sant Pol is very quiet with only a scattering of visitors at this time of year. The few upmarket beachside restaurants are closed due to Covid restrictions which is a shame because it would be lovely to sit at an outdoor table while sipping a drink and watching world go by.

A boardwalk follows the bay. There are shower facilities on the beach for swimmers. There is even a chrome hand rail descending into the sea, as if it were just some vast swimming pool. Only the lack of any significant tide can make these static facilities viable.

The tempting waters of Sant Pol beach

The boardwalk continues through sea grass topped dunes toward the exclusive gated community of S’Agaro, home to 1200 “residents”, a 5 star hotel and a Michelin starred restaurant.

Boardwalk

A stone path winds around the coast beneath the arches and floral planting of mansions beyond the financial reach of the innocent. I’ve observed a luxury yacht moored in the bay from my balcony over the past couple of days. From close quarters it appears the type that has its own full time chef, security detail and accountant.

Nice if you can afford it

The path jinks inland taking me past a private tennis club and through an enclave of unaffordable mansions. I wonder whether some of the owners are even aware they have a property here amidst their portfolio. It’s no surprise this little community has long been a destination for the rich and famous, including, Liz Taylor, Dirk Bogarde and Sean Connery.

On the rocks

The coves are becoming progressively smaller. The beach of Sa Concha is only accessible by foot unless you can blag your car past one of the two the security gates that protect S’Agaro from visiting mortals.

Sa Concha. Small but perfectly formed.

The path continues over a section of, as yet, undeveloped headland onto the long sandy beachfront of Platja d’Aro, to Palamos and beyond. But not for me. This short stretch of the Cami De Ronda has packed in such a variety of scenery – rich views for rich people. The smugglers have bought up the coastline.

The New Normal

We all know that experience of waking up somewhere different and taking awhile to grasp where we actually are. I wake for the first time in my Costa Brava bolt hole knowing where I am but not truly comprehending it. It’s barely light as I shuffle stiffly out of bed and across the living room instinctively towards the light from the balcony.  I slide open the doors and enter the cinema screen that will leave me every bit as dumbstruck when I see it in the weeks to come.

Sunrise


I’m just in time to catch the dying glow of sunrise as the low sun begins it’s ascent from sea level and rakes long shadows across the fluffy green canopy of pines that proliferate the slopes beneath our balcony. There is no sound or motion except for swifts that dart by acrobatically on their morning mission. The sandy bay of Sant Pol to my left is calm and inviting. A small boat is heading into the harbour town of Sant Feliu to my right. I can just about make out the bulk of a container ship far out to sea, perhaps on its way to Barcelona down the coast. I will never tire of this view.

Good morning Sant Feliu

It’s mild even at this early hour and in just a few minutes the sun has asserted itself fully and blindingly off the coastal waters. Time to unpack the coffee machine.



The first day after any arrival is usually an eye popping affair. In time I will no doubt become oblivious to some of the sights that today fill my senses. The drive to Palamos along the C-31 dual carriageway is pleasing on the eye. Hill top towns rise out of the wooded slopes, every one topped by a stone church spire. The few clear areas of land are given over to agriculture of some sort. Having just put our UK allotment to bed until Spring it’s disconcerting to drive through a landscape where crops are still ripening up in the sun.


We almost plumped for a home rental in Palamos. On first appearances I’m glad we didn’t.

Palamos high rise

The long beachfront is overshadowed by high rise apartments that you like to think would not be given planning permission in these times. It’s a rarity along this northern stretch of coastline where development has on the whole been more subtly managed. The beach is undeniably impressive but it is the fish market that we have come to visit. In the UK the trawlers tend to return to port in the early hours but we have learnt that they unload here in the late afternoon.

Bringing home the fish

We are the first customers at 5pm and half a dozen long ice counters are submerged with a catch that has only just been lifted off the boats and been sorted. There is too much to take in. Where to start? It is inevitable that we buy too much. It’s who we are. Fish is a way of life for people on this coast. The quantity and variation of seafood available in any town or village exceeds the best we can expect in the UK so we are obliged to make the most of this during our extended stay.

Fruits of the sea

There is a complete change of scene a mere 10 minute stroll up the coastline beyond the commercial moorings. A pleasant harbour is ringed by tasteful low rise apartments, in contrast to the tower blocks we left behind. The entire Costa Brava coastline is well served by walking routes and we follow one bordering the harbour, past a campsite and up into the woods. Camping is very popular here and with this climate is makes a lot of sense.

Our chronic lack of fitness is exposed by the modest slopes. I’m determined to walk myself to fitness in the coming weeks, if I can resist the patisseries that whisper to me on every street corner. I feel it’s going to be a case of 2 steps forward, 1 cake back. The effort is totally worth it as the route unveils itself gradually, culminating in a breathtaking reveal over the next bay. I’m minded to return with a folding chair and just sit here in the sun, except it would be late by the time I returned to the car. And I don’t have a folding chair.

A view worth standing for, though I managed to screw up the photo

We stand awhile silently, overlooking the sea in the mottled shade of pine trees warmed by a temperate breeze, with not a soul in sight. I’m going to bottle this memory and save it for one of those damp grey bone chilling days that the British winter will inflict on me when I return to home shores.

It’s getting dark early now as we head into the depths of autumn. My favourite part of any town is the old centre, with its winding streets and charismatic old buildings. Palamos is no exception and we wander around a pedestrianised area taking in the early evening buzz as people finish work and pick up their groceries on the way home. There are enough people going about their business to lend a sense of normality in these strained times, with only the prevalence of face masks and hand sanitiser a reminder of the bigger picture.

North-south streets are in shadow while east-west streets are ablaze with dazzling low sunlight. In fact we don’t even attempt to walk west on account of not being able to see anything. Fortunately there are delis in all directions and we feel duty bound to pick up all sorts of goodies in one of them. It is becoming clear that Catalans appreciate good quality produce. Did I mention the cake shop? Did I need to?

This feels like home

By the time we leave Palamos I’ve adjusted my view of the town. It has plenty of charm and character to offset the excessive beachfront construction that looms over the beach. We drive home with minds full of sun and scenery. This evening will involve doing something exciting with fish. It’s hard to imagine that we have several weeks ahead of us in this bubble of adventure. Will we tire of exploration? Will the fish run out? Will our exercise outweigh the calorific destruction that is sure to follow us home every week? I’m pretty confident I know the answer to the first 2 questions.

An Unlikely Honeymoon

Road trip!

To say 2020 has been a strange year for all of us would be an understatement but we can at least rest assured that the period we are living through will feature prominently in history books. We have all heard about the fall of Rome, 1066 or “discovery” of the Americas but if you lived between, say, 1400 and 1500 the chances are that most people won’t know anything of your time. Scant consolation for lockdown, plague and death but you have to take the positives where you find them.

My consolation in 2020 began with the onset of autumn. The small but perfectly formed wedding we had planned for June fell the way of Covid restrictions and several months later we ended up at the registry office. It was more delightful than it sounds. Then a couple of days later we drove to Portsmouth and boarded a ferry for Spain – the culmination of speculative planning that, coincidentally, turned out to be our honeymoon. The crossing was uneventful unless you call bringing your own coffee machine into the cabin an event. 

Not getting off here. Ever.
Not getting off here. Ever.

After 2 nights at sea broken only by a stop at Roscoff we docked in Bilbao and, after a friendly temperature check and the most cursory of glances at our passports through the car window, we were en la tierra de España. Just like that.

Except of course that it wasn’t just like that. All of our bookings were subject to possible cancellation. We ourselves could have come down with Covid despite our hermit like existence. The subconscious release of worry we had been harbouring for many weeks is hard to explain. Our 7 hour journey from the Bay of Biscay across the plains of Spain to the Mediterranean was not the drag it might otherwise have been. The Basque mountains and greenery soon gave way to semi-arid flatlands, dotted with innumerable vineyards and olive groves. The roads were quiet. The sun – the SUN! And just as fatigue was setting in an outrageously improbable Pyrenean mountain spiked out of the Eastern horizon like some dreamily painted backdrop from a 1950’s western film set.

Road trip!
Road trip!

The Catalan county of Emporda heralded a return to greenery and the briefest flirtation with traffic around the periphery of Barcelona, before we rolled into our scantily researched destination of Sant Feliu de Guixols. We stopped by a supermarket and even that was exciting. Freshly squeezed orange juice. So many olives. A fish counter to shame any in the UK.

Side note: Sant Feliu, population 20,000 has over a dozen fishmongers. The average village in this region has more (and better) fish supplies than most English cities. Go figure.

With the shopping squeezed on top of our already saturated payload we navigated the final 5 minutes to our hilltop base for the coming weeks where our hostess greeted us with a twilight tour of the facilities before heading back home to Barcelona. She, like so many other homeowners in this district, is a city dweller with a second home here for weekends and the occasional longer escape.

This is promising
This is promising

We are here. We are alone. I stand awhile on the balcony looking out at the sea a mile away. There are lights in the harbour of Sant Feliu to my right. The air is mild. A light breeze ruffles over the pine trees that form a green cloud like canopy on the lower slopes. Bats flit noiselessly between the branches. I can hear nothing save for the odd cricket.

What can we expect while we are here? Will a Spanish lockdown curtail our adventures? Will working remotely dampen this feeling of escape? We have steadfastly agreed not to think in these terms.

The important questions are: Will it be warm enough in October to take a dip in the pool or in the sea? How soon can I stuff my face with fish? Will Duolingo make me proficient in Spanish? How do you pronounce “Guixols”? Only time will tell. Until then, buenos notches y hasta luego.

Digging In

A mere 10 weeks ago I was innocently lapping up the Madeira Carnival and researching trips to northern Italy (of all places) and beyond. Now a trip to the shops requires a comparable level of planning and presents similar pangs of anticipation.

In these challenging times we all need to find some normality with a side order of escapism. For me the allotment has become my day out, exercise and mental escape from what could otherwise descend into the grey sludge of existence. Or at least Netflix box-set oblivion.

We have been plot holders now for (remarkably) 5 years, during which time it feels like we have been in a constant arm wrestle with an octopus. This makes sense when viewed in retrospect. In our first year we started late and took over a plot in a shambolic state. Every year since we have taken on some new area – either expanding our smallholding or exchanging one plot for another – and in doing so we have never been able to focus our resources in consolidating what we already have.

What we inherited 5 years ago
What we inherited 5 years ago

This year for the first time we have retained last year’s borders. In previous years we would have made a hand full of visits to the allotment in March and April to fight battle with the raging hangover of last year’s party. This year I have probably visited 10 times every week over the same period and the results are profound. We are, for the first time, ON TOP OF THINGS! (*) At least as much as one can ever be on top of parcel of land created and regulated almost wholly by forces outside our control. 

Here’s a list of some of the jobs I chalked off by early May.

Maintenance

Maintained  – Turns out that the reason my shed was leaning precariously was that the neighbouring butt containing 1000 litres of water had slid off its base. It took considerable effort to empty the butt and rebuild the base from scrap materials but now it’s done.

Cleared – An inherited shed was totally overrun with brambles. It took me an entertaining 10 minutes to dismantle it with an unsuitably small hammer. Clearing the area of brambles took longer, but it’s done.

Past its best
Past its best

Built – That shed I dismantled? I used salvaged materials to build a raised planter for strawberries. It turns out that almost all allotment activity takes place at ground level or below so an elevated planter is your back’s best friend

From shed to planter
From shed to planter

Organised – I finally got around to building a dedicated area for storing bricks. Nice and tidy!

rick pile! (I get excited about this kind of thing)
Brick pile! (I get excited about this kind of thing)

Maintained – Two stretches of path have been reset to eradicate weeds. This entailed lifting slabs, weeding and relaying the slabs over a plastic sheet to prevent future weed incursion. This was most satisfying, if at times horrifying as beneath some slabs I found teeming ant metropoles. They were not happy with my intrusion but I am now the Ant Overlord. Which is nice.

Built – I built 2 new beds, one for onions and one for rhubarb. There’s a career in bed building if I choose it.

Onion bed - there will be tears
Onion bed – there will be tears

Built – I constructed a system of fruit supports within the fruit cage. Our relocated blackberries and cherry sapling will finally have to start respecting my authority on where to grow.

Built  – One feature of my polytunnel rebuild I was never happy with was the door latches. I designed and build much sturdier ones using slats from a garden chair I found in a skip plus plastic shipping waste from a new washing machine.

Door latches – Blue Peter style
Door latches – Blue Peter style

Pruned – The fruit trees in the communal orchard have long been abused and neglected. I gave them a vigorous pruning  in order to encourage growth and prevent disease. They have since bloomed with a vengeance, giving me the retrospective delusion I knew what I was doing at the time.

It doesn't get any more exciting than this!
It doesn’t get any more exciting than this!

Maintained – I actually, REALLY, turned the compost! I never get around to turning the compost. Does anybody?

Ground prep

Prepared – I uncovered and turned a 2 substantial areas for potatoes, which have since been planted and earthed up earlier than ever

Future chips
Future chips

Prepared – The 2 raspberry beds have been weeded, fed with compost and mulched

Future Eton Mess
Future Eton Mess

Weeded – I turned and weeded a long bed for brassicas, although our hopes of success this time are tempered by the fact we have been dining on pest leftovers for the past 3 years.

Weeded – Weeds in the fruit cage have been removed where possible. They have a knack of rooting next to the fruit stems making it impossible to get them out without damaging the fruit stems. Plan B is to cover with weed control fabric, or there’s Plan C – ignore them.

All under control
All under control

Weeded – Large areas of our plot that have been infested with self-seeded forget-me-not that a former neighbour let loose without thinking. I belatedly worked out why they are called forget-me-nots. While prolific they don’t deep-root so can be cleared quite quickly.

Planting

Transplanted – A very long-suffering pear has been liberated from a pot in the back garden to our fruit tree bed. It is the Terry Waite of the Orchard – free at last and no doubt writing a memoir about its former incarceration.

Pear tree rehomed and water
Pear tree rehomed and watered

Transplanted – The cherry sapling we planted in the communal orchard has struggled to compete for light and water. I moved it to the fruit cage where it could be protected from birds and trained

Transplanted – A badly positioned gooseberry bush has been re-homed in the fruit cage. It just looks so happy now. I do hope it thanks us later in the season.

Planted – Two young rhubarb crowns finally got a new home. They haven’t shown much sign of activity in the following weeks but they are alive. A bit like bedroom bound teenagers in the summer holidays.


Most of these tasks have been completed in an hour or two, time often stolen from an early evening after work. Cumulatively they have propelled us into May with unprecedented momentum.

Allotments are rewarding in many ways but during the lockdown months I appreciate having a point of focus outdoors. There is still so much to do but by achieving numerous smaller tasks it feels like I have a semblance of control over something.

Control is of course an illusion, as anyone who had plans for 2020 will recognise. A mild frost in early May forced us to cover all sorts of plants that might otherwise have been damaged. An impromptu gale yesterday last night may have caused some damage down at the plot. The ants may have overthrown me as leader during my absence.

All you can do is plan, hope, implement, review and accept. Perhaps most importantly you try to enjoy. Ant powder helps.

Carnival

Carnival !

It is an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon in Funchal, balmy capital of the Portuguese isle of Madeira. Most businesses have closed early and the few people I see on the streets march by with unusual purpose. Everyone who lives here knows what is coming.

I walk into one of my favourite restaurants near the harbour without a reservation. Yes, they have free tables. The place should be packed with tourists who arrived this morning on the gargantuan cruise ship docked in the harbour a few hundred metres away. They know what’s coming.

Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up
Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up

The sun has set by the time I leave the restaurant and Funchal is transformed with pretty street lighting, raised flags and a steady stream of people walking towards the promenade. Everyone has gathered to see the main parade of the Madeira carnival.

Jostling for position
Jostling for position

This well established annual event is a highlight of the year (there are many) although none of the official publicity has suggested a time for proceedings to start. This is a laid back culture after all.

Fuelling up
Fuelling up

Street vendors are doing a steady trade. There are queues for coffee (Madeiran’s are fuelled by caffeine) as well as Poncha – the brilliantly simple island hooch, consisting of Madeiran rum, freshly squeezed fruit juice and honey.

Elevated viewing points are in demand
Elevated viewing points are in demand

People have arrived early to grab a prime viewing position.

Some will go to any length
Some will go to any length

Everyone seems to be wearing more than me on this mild evening which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the “winter” period for residents (a mere 18 degrees Celsius today), while the older tourist demographic would no doubt have their thermostats turned up were it the same temperature at home.

I hear the leading parade float long before I’m able to see it above a sea of heads. It looks like all of Funchal’s young people are in the parade and they aren’t the least over-dressed.

Setting the tone
Setting the tone

At this point I should confess that I have only previously watched carnival parades in colder climates. The Grassington Festival for instance was a wonderfully fun example of a British carnival but this evening’s Latin blooded affair has more in common with Rio than Yorkshire.

Funchal or Rio?
Funchal or Rio?

The Funchal carnival is all about passion, colour and sequins. Nobody is going to call you out for wearing too much bling.

Centre of attention
Centre of attention

It’s hard to get a good view with so many enthusiastic party goers in front of me, but who cares – I love it! The crowd love it!

Carnival !
Carnival !

The guys and (mostly) girls in the parade love it too.

Hold on to your hat
Hold on to your hat

Massive effort has gone into preparations for this year’s event. The floats are magnificent and the glamorous costumes remind me of some 1930’s broadway production

Putting on a show
Putting on a show

The parade consists of numerous themed floats, each with an accompanying ground force of performers – be it dancers, drummers or both

Leading Lady
Leading Lady

The floats are never ending, which might explain why town was empty a few hours ago.

Stayin Alive
Stayin Alive

Every float is pumping out it’s own music. There’s a Latin theme with the Bee Gee’s Stayin Alive thrown in for variation

Music and rhythm
Music and rhythm

This is not a night for introverts.

Everyone is a star
Everyone is a star

The whole of the island is represented by tonight’s parade, although the carnival itself is running over a couple of weeks across the island.

Capturing the moment
Capturing the moment

I love the inclusivity of the parade. A wide variety of people from across the island are involved and their joy is infectiously transmitted to the crowd.

A alegria da vida
A alegria da vida

The sheer effort that has gone into the costumes, body painting and choreography is spectacular.

For one night only...
For one night only…

It’s hard to imagine that all of these exotic performers have day jobs or attend school. Today they have come together for a cabaret that will live long in the memory.

Life is a cabaret
Life is a cabaret

I walk to the end of the parade where the performers have broken formation into social groups. The buzz of energy is receding as people catch their breath. If the parade has been poncha then the aftermath is definitely coffee.

All good things come to an end
All good things come to an end

For some revellers the evening is winding down as they head back to other neighbourhoods

Taking flight
Taking flight

Others will head off into town to party all night long. Their celebrations have only just started.

For me the night is over and I have loved every minute of it. I would return again just for this event, although there are many other must-see festivals in the Madeiran calendar, such as the remarkable Flower Festival I was fortunate to attend on my last visit.


Needless to say there is a hung-over feel to Funchal on Sunday. The parade route has been meticulously cleared and cleaned but there are clues of last night’s party. A couple of costumed paraders sip juice at a bar (have they even slept?). A waitress still shows signs of face glitter. Even my cable car ascent to Monte captures the aftermath of last night’s events…

The morning after
The morning after

The parade may be over but the carnival goes on. Madeirans, generous in spirit, welcome the outside attention that their festivities attract and there will be regular representatives at the iconic fish and flower market over the coming days

Until next time...
Until next time…

Madeira may be a mound of rock poking out of the Atlantic 600 miles south west of Lisbon and 300 miles west of the Moroccan coast but it has a vibrancy that belies its size. There are many other annual highlights to attend such as the Atlantic Festival, the Jazz Festival or the Wine Festival, though I’m sorely tempted to return for the Carnival. When else might I get to wear face paint?

The Motzi Immortal

It’s our final morning at Casa Motului. I may have indulged a little too enthusiastically in last night’s complimentary offerings of Palinca (plum brandy) and Visinata (sour cherry brandy) – spirits that sit in the 40-60% proof range. Many people make these popular Romanian spirits and I expect the proprietors generosity is enabled by considerable vats of home made produce.

I'm 94 you know
I’m 94 you know

This Sunday morning we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast when an elderly gentleman dressed in a tattered brown suit comes knocking at the door. It seems he is known by one of the owners sons who lets him in and lays out a very generous measure of visinata (!) for the chap. He approaches our table carrying a large sack over his shoulder and introduces himself by kissing M’s hand and telling us he’s 94, before producing a rustic hand made wooden jug from the sack. Would we like to buy one? It’s the kind of memento we would love to take home with us but it’s going to be too big to transport.

“But you have a car?” asks the gent. Yes, but we are flying home. “Where have you come from?”. England, we explain. He goes silent and wears an expression of incomprehension. We might as well have said that we were visitors from Mars. We give him little cash and some bananas that we aren’t going to get through and he works his way around the breakfast room, selling his entire stock before polishing off the visinata.

Market vith a view
Market vith a view

Sunday is market day in the remote neighbouring village of Ariesene and that will be our final port of call before we leave the Apuseni. We pack and drive the 2km into the village, passing our 94 year old friend who is just completing a slow walk back – a route that he could conceivably have been walking since the early 1930s. We have seen many old folk walking between villages. Hard work, pork fat and palinca have made the Motzi indestructible it seems.

Most of the market goers are elderly and some seem over dressed for the ocassion, possibly for church but also because standards must be maintained for any communal gathering. The social aspect of this Sunday market appears to be at least as important as the opportunity to buy things.

Fresh from the fields
Fresh from the fields

First impressions are of a street market you might find anywhere on your travels but on closer inspection there are some distinctive differences to the ones I’m used to.

Villagers queue outside vans that are packed high with cabbages. They are buying carrier bags full and taking them home to pickle. Sturdy men and women of pensionable age think nothing of hauling large sacks of cabbages, potatoes or onions on their shoulders.

A womans work
A womans work

One stallholder is selling live chickens for 25 lei (£5). Their young child sits quietly in a carboard box next to a cage and a lady playfully asks whether the boy is for sale.

Little chicken
Little chicken

Several clothes stalls are run by gypsies who have travelled from further afield. Everything looks second hand and nobody here is likely to have the money or time for designer gear.

More cowbell
More cowbell

Farmers and smallholders are well catered for. My favourite stall is selling leather bridle gear and the type of alpine cow bells whose dull chime you regularly hear in these parts. Nearby I see a display of wood cutting equipment. A frail lady who looks around 80 years old is lifting a heavy axe with a sturdy 4 ft handle. She scrutinises the blade and feels the balance and I wonder if she will be chopping the logs or whether this is a purchase for a younger family member. Part of the appeal of this market is imagining the lifestyles and livelihoods of the buyers and sellers.

An axe for every ocassion
An axe for every ocassion

Today we are not in the market for cabbages, axes or cowbells (in retrospect I wish I had bought a cow bell) but some hand made mountain cheese would be welcome. Given the variety of produce on sale it’s a little surprising that there is no cheese to be seen. We are given a tip-off to continue down the road past the school and ask at the third house on the left…

Beyond the crowd
Beyond the crowd

We leave the hubub of the market behind. Some free roaming cows have crossed the river to graze and block the road. Just as we think we must have gone too far we spot a(nother) little old lady standing quietly by herself outside a normal looking home. We furtively ask about the “brânză”. She tells us that we need to speak to her daughter and beckons us to follow her through the garden to the back door. The daughter appears and explains to us that she has no cheese ready at this moment but she does have milk and can make some for us if we are able to come back in the afternoon.

In a parallel universe we hang around until later because fresh cheese made by hand from milk of the mountains is going to be out of this world! Unfortunately our return to Cluj cannot wait and we are left to imagine what we are missing out on.

The cheese episode serves as a metaphor for so many travel experiences, whereby a tantalising glimpse of some other world raises more question questions than it answers. During our short visit to the Apuseni I have learned that the hard working Motzi people have an intrinsic bond with this remote rugged landscape. In these times of dizzying change they maintain their long standing relationship with the land and livestock.

Stubborn as a mule
Stubborn as a mule

We drive gingerly through the crowded market street on the start of our journey home and give way to a cart coming the other way. As it draws alongside us the horse decides to stop and will simply not be moved. There is quite a scene with traffic backing up and all eyes are focussed on this mini drama until a stallholder intervenes. He picks up and moves from the pavement a small silver toy windmill that spins in the breeze. The horse is pacified and on he trots. This muscular working horse was simply frightened by a shiny toy and this random Motzi man had the innate understanding to realise the problem and know how to handle the horse. Sometimes it’s the little things that leave a lasting impression.

I hope to return to Motzi country some day and when I do I hope to find it just as I left it. Just with freshly made cheese.

Deep into the Apuseni

How best to describe the Apuseni region of Romania? This Carpathian mountain range emerges a 90 minute drive west of the northern city of Cluj. The hills become progressively more densely packed and dark forests of evergreen blacken the horizon, broken only by a few denuded golden deciduous trees that are fast succumbing to the season.

Ascent into the Carpathians
Ascent into the Carpathians

From time to time we rise out of from some deep narrow valley into a clearing to see rustic traditional wooden houses scattered like dots up into the hills within fields enclosed by hand crafted fences. A scattering of cows munch the steep slopes, their neck bells chiming bluntly as they move. Smoke drifts down into the valleys as villagers fend off a cold grip that descends when the thin autumn sun recedes

Farming life
Farming life

Every livestock owner is the process of assembling traditional tall and narrow haystacks for winter feed.

On our journey we regularly see piles of freshly hewn timber by the side of the road. It’s common to see a toothless old lady dressed in black walking between villages. Men in traditional hats work the fields, chop timber with axes, build new homes. Older men share a bench and talk, sparingly it seems. Words, like natures resources, are not wasted in these parts.

Traditional wooden cabin constructed from local timber
Traditional wooden cabin constructed from local timber

Traditional gypsy wooden horse drawn carts roll by like open narrow boats with only rubber tyres as a concession to modernity. Come nightfall these primitive carriages crawl perilously along pitch blank rural roads with no lights or reflectors. On a recent night drive in Transylvania the rear of an unlit  cart loomed suddenly into view and I caught the fleeting snapshot of a shawled lady pointing a torch to the tarmac as two children hung onto her. The old ways and new ways don’t always mix well.

This is the region of the Motzi – a quiet spoken people, straightforward but welcoming. These hard working folk are thoroughly self reliant due to generations of life in largely unconnected communities.

The Apuseni sits in the outer fringes of Transylvania but has a distinct character. Closer to Hungary than Bucharest this is a land of folklore and tradition, tied inseperably to the environment. There are few major employers here. You sustain yourself, your family, your village from the land. Tourism is growing in importance as evidenced by the winter skip slopes in Vartop. The few visitors at this time of year are drawn to outdoor pursuits such as climbing, walking, cycling, plus the mountain air.

Closed until return of the tourist season
Closed until return of the tourist season

Although only modestly heralded on the international stage the Apuseni has world significance for cavers due to its extensive underground systems. A cave at Scarisoara contains the worlds largest underground glacier, which until relatively recent times served as a cold store for the villagers food in the summer.

My preparation for the visit didn’t turn up much information online. Romania is years behind the UK when it comes to the provision of information and services on the internet and the Apuseni is no exception. The extreme landscape means there are plenty of areas without a phone signal and when phoning to book a B&B (forget online booking!) it’s entirely possible the landlord will only check answerphone messages once every day or two when they are in range of a signal.

Taxi!
Taxi!

There are plenty of things to see and do that you only discover on arrival – just like how things used to be everywhere else. Our host at Casa Motolui – a through and through Motzi man – tells us that if we drive to the next village we will find a field where we can hire a horse and cart to take us to a waterfall. Sure enough we find 2 rough and ready carriages and their steeds, their respective owners sitting in silence with cigarettes in hand. We choose the more expensive carriage (approx £18) on the basis the alternative is a pony drawn death trap with a driver that looks like he’s on day release from prison.

Bujor

Our driver is a friendly jovial Motzi and his steed – Bujor – looks up to the task of hauling flabby city types over rough tracks. The next hour is a non-stop delight, save from the constant fear we may fall off the carriage as it rattles alarmingly over the boulder strewn path. We roll by wooden hand crafted cottages and on into the woods. Our path crosses the stream a few times but the log bridges can’t sustain us and so we simply ford the water.

Bujor stops to cool and refuel
Bujor stops to cool and refuel

We don’t mind in the least that Bujor simply stops when he is tired and needs a break. At these times we hop off and walk alongside while he catches his breath, poor thing. This is a joyful experience despite the fact that we could have walked the route just as fast. One of the countless waterfalls in this area awaits us at the end of the track. It’s all lovely.

In the afternoon we drive out of the valley up hairpin roads that start off tarmac and become progressively rougher. Cows gaze on in curiosity while farmers spare us a glance before continuing with the business of the day.

A hard working landscape
A hard working landscape

It’s all so intimate and a little like driving through the shire of The Hobbit. Our destination is the village of Scarisoara and our first appointment is in an authentic traditional wooden dwelling that serves as a shop for the villagers to sell their craft produce. The timber beams are so low that I can barely stand upright and I wonder if that’s because malnutrition used to stunt peoples growth.

Traditional house selling traditional crafts
Traditional house selling traditional crafts

There are a wide range of hand made items to be seen, including a long Bucium wooden horn that looks a bit like a didgeridoo and is an historic musical instrument of the region. There is an attractive range of pottery, the ubiquitous palinca spirit and a selection of jams and syrups made from mountain fruits that I know will be bursting with flavour, all at ludicrously cheap prices.

Tempting, but no
Tempting, but no

Our Renault (ef)Fluence hire car is soon groaning under the weight of jam and we haven’t even started what we came here for.

Our Renault (E)Fluence hire car - it really stinks
Our Renault (E)Fluence hire car – it really stinks

Scarisoara owes its popularity to the world renown cave that awaits our visit. A pleasant 10 minute stroll up hill through the golden autumn landscape doesn’t hint at what is to come. We pass a number of abandoned wooden vendor tables and boarded-up vending huts adorned with signs advertising cheese pies and affinata (blueberry spirit) and it’s clear that this place gets considerably more busy in the tourist season.

Placinta cheese pies for sale. In a few months.
Placinta cheese pies for sale. In a few months.

The path leads to a wooden “office” where an unlikely looking ticket salesman barely looks up from the Romanian soap on his portable TV as he takes our payment. Only as we attempt to leave does he jump up and share some statistical facts about the cave while pointing at a couple of faded dusty hand-drawn schematics on the hut wall.

High tech laser display panel of the cave system
High tech laser display panel of the cave system

Armed with a few titbits of knowledge we head down a steep metal Escheresque starcase lining a great chasm in the ground. The descent is perhaps 100m, during which the temperature drops from 18 degrees to freezing. And that’s important because this cave is famous for containing the largest underground glacier in the world.

Deep into the Apuseni

There isn’t a whole lot to see, largely because there are almost no lights down here, but it’s worth a visit if only to imagine the time when villagers used the cave as a cold store during summer. How did they get down here? Which poor soul had to make this perilous journey just to get something from the fridge? Were any villagers strangled for asking their returning partners to “just pop back down love – I forgot to mention we need some of that wild boar”.

The 720m long glacier cave at Scărișoara
The 720m long glacier cave at Scărișoara

This self-guided tour takes less time than the ascent. We have witnessed so much beauty and contrast today and yet there has been almost no sense of that raw display of nature being corrupted by tourism or commercialisation. The physical isolation of the Apuseni may go some way to explaining this but also perhaps it comes down to the mentality of the Motzi people. They have been living in their own way for a long time and they aren’t going to change any time soon. At least that’s what I hope.