Festive In Funchal

A few years ago I spent the Christmas period in Romania and with shin deep snowfall it felt particularly festive. This year after a stint in São Martinho, followed by internment at the Savoy Next hotel, we have moved into a more spacious central Funchal apartment where we hope to find that festive feeling. All the ingredients are there – sun, palm trees, orchids, a warm Saharan breeze… hang on…

Despite all of the above there are good reasons why people flock to sunny Madeira for Christmas and the New Year. The build-up starts in November when a battalion of council workers set about weaving a vast web of street lighting across the city.

Light goods vehicle

Their efforts extend well beyond some central square. Every arterial road out of the city is festooned with rope lighting and few side streets seem to be left without some sort of illumination. I’m taken aback by the scale of what I’m seeing and this is before they are even switched on. There’s a sense of anticipation I’ve never experienced anywhere else. What is all of this going to look like?!

After all of the build up I’m busy working when somebody flicks the switch. At home this would be at the hand of some Love Island reject who is set to appear in panto but I suspect here there is no need for such a sideshow when the lights will speak for themselves. And they do.

The city is transformed! There is almost too much to take in. Streets and squares that are beautiful all year round become enchanted with the most tasteful light displays. Palm trees lining the harbour twinkle beneath the mild night skies.

A vortex of yule

There is a psychedelic tunnel of colour you can walk through which pulsates and rotates in accompaniment with stirring Christmas music.

At the far end of the tunnel you are rewarded by a majestic cluster of snow white trees, the last christmas decorations before the Americas, if you ignore the cruise ships that have become temporary floating grottos.

Not sure what these are but I like them

The further you walk the more you see – it doesn’t seem to end. A glance to the distant hills, lit up by snakes of light, is enough to get a sense of what Christmas means in Funchal.

Back in our apartment we have tried to decorate the best we can. I packed a 20cm high desktop tree back in October and it looks somewhat … modest, but it’s the thought that counts and we have to be resourceful. Presents are wrapped and then bound using dental floss because we don’t have any sticky tape. The minty aroma makes an effective substitute for fresh pine needles. Best of all we nip out to the flower market and buy the most stunning flowers for mere pennies and instantly our living room is transformed.

As ever in Funchal there is a yang to every yin. During the day time we look out of our window to the 2nd floor balcony across the road only to meet the gaze of disinterested office workers taking breaks for cigarettes and personal phone calls. At night we are bombarded until midnight by noisy drunks falling out of the bar along the street. Still, we have relative space and comfort here compared to our previous accommodation.

Throughout December we only have to step outside to find ourselves immersed in the season. In one direction the illuminated thoroughfare of Dr Fernão de Ornelas is serenaded with classy uplifting choral music. At no point this Christmas will we be forced to endure Slade, Wizard or Mariah Carey.


Heading into town a suspended drizzle of lights twinkles above the small square of Largo Do Charafiz. I like to sit at the bench on a mild evening and just be in the moment. Other people have the same idea.

Continuing on past the Cathedral to Avenida Arriaga I come across a lavish nativity scene carpeted with exotic flowers. What could be more Madeiran!

Nearby at a pop-up Christmas village you can buy a poncha, the all year round speciality comprised of rum, orange juice and honey which works especially well as a Christmas drink. Amongst the many attractions is a hand-crafted island landscape in miniature, dotted with traditional scenes and images. Amongst the many clever touches is a levada with running water

Madeira under the microscope

Onward to the ever-classy Ritz where people sip cocktails and watch the world go by. Across the road to the horticultural oasis of Jardim Municipal which has been transformed into a magical village for Santa’s entourage of helpers and reindeer.

Home to Santa’s helpers

I head back home in a loop up Avenida Zarco with its colourfully illuminated trees and then through to Praca do Município which looks stunning in green and red. Every road, every square, has a distinct coordinated theme resulting in a high class of display.

There is so much to see within a few minutes of our apartment and you can only become saturated with the spirit of Christmas. Almost every night I step out into these streets after work and it is impossible not to feel buoyed by the sights and sounds.

Putting on a show

In the final week leading up to Christmas a traditional xmas night market is held in the streets around Mercado dos Lavradores. This year the event has been scaled back due to covid. Most of the stalls are selling flowers or fruit. We dropped by a butchers for some meat and we were implored to try a tangerine from behind the counter, despite the fact they were not selling them. An odd proposition but you don’t argue with a guy wielding a meat clever. He explained this was a Madeiran tangerine that was in season right now and we should be careful to buy this and not some imported product.

Liquid marmalade

We were astonished by the deep, smoky aroma of the fruit and its bitter-sweet marmalade flavour. Once outside we promptly bought a bag from one of the market stalls.

How do you celebrate Christmas when you are on a small island in the Atlantic 1,591 miles from home? You get together with others who are also away from home at this time.

We invited digital nomad friends from Prague to visit us on Christmas eve to share some good cheer around our dining table. In the best yuletide traditions of the pandemic age we cheerfully greeted them at the door, subjected them to a covid test and locked them on our balcony for half an hour until they proved negative. We exchanged some gifts and I gave them some of my freshly made gingerbread. Drinks, food, chatter and the best company made for a special night, until we kicked them out at midnight. No room at the inn!

Christmas in a suitcase

And so to Christmas day, just the two of us, the small cow atop our 20cm Christmas tree and a tiny plastic duck called Emmy who we rescued from a life of servitude at the Savoy. A day of simple things. A stroll down to the sea. The streets quiet aside from a hand full of cafes still open for tourists. The churches with their doors open to the public. And socks. Lots of socks.

Inevitably we cooked and ate like kings. I was particularly pleased with my fabulous winter bombe crafted out of shop bought ice cream, packed with fruit and nuts before entombment in layers of panettone and melted dark chocolate.

So very good!

The highlight was the thick smoky syrup I reduced out of the Madeiran tangerines we picked up at the market and swirled through the ice cream before returning it all to the freezer. It was a spectacular yule dessert yet so easy to make away from home with a minimum of effort.

If you put aside the fact that we didn’t spend any time with close friends or family it’s fair to say Madeira offered us one of the most memorable Christmas experiences ever. I didn’t expect to feel this way at all. Which makes more sense when you realise that Madeira’s reputation for delivering a great Christmas experience is dwarfed by its reputation for delivering a great New Year’s Eve party.

You see Madeira, population 250,000, is globally recognised as being one of the best places in the world to see in the new year. In 2006 Funchal was awarded a Guinness world record for the biggest fireworks show in the world, ahead of the likes of Sydney and Rio De Janeiro.

In the weeks leading up to new year many digital nomads or long-term visitors to the isle were asking where would be best to watch the fireworks. Everyone who lives on the island seems to have their preferred place to gather. Having spent a couple of months walking the length and breadth of Funchal I formed the idea that an ideal viewing point would be high up on the road above Estadio dos Barreiros, home of CS Maratimo.

Lofty Estadio dos Barreiros by day

We arranged to meet our Prague friends there shortly before midnight and at 11pm on December 31st we left our flat and walked through the town centre, which was an odd sensation in itself with crowds of people heading towards the harbour area. As we exited the centre of town we found ourselves walking almost in isolation against a mass of people heading in the opposite direction. Many people were dressed in formal evening wear, perhaps some party in their sights. The tree lined boulevard of Avenida do Infante was backed up with traffic, its pavements almost impassable due to parked cars.

Walking out of town felt like a good idea as we met our friends and climbed up steeply past Jardim Quinta Magnolia away from the hustle and bustle below. Inevitably when we arrived at our viewing point there were already hundreds of people stood at the roadside looking down into the bay of Funchal but I took that as confirmation we had chosen a good spot.

While our view was not perfect we could make out a multitude of brightly lit cruise liners in the bay who will have charged a premium for this experience. The normal harbour capacity is 3 or 4 large liners but I read that tonight 11 ships were in town with 7 anchored outside the harbour walls. Most of our kerbside neighbours appeared to have walked our of their front doors which must save a lot of time and money in the scheme of things.

A community takes to the street

On the imaginary chimes of midnight the display erupted. Trying to describe fireworks is perhaps even more futile than trying to capture them with anything but the best photographic equipment. The sheer scale of the pyrotechnics was hard to fathom. There were, apparently, 52 different launch stations distributed around the wider Funchal area, plus 5 more floating on rafts around the harbour. From our viewpoint I counted around 20 different launch clusters that proceeded to eject an intense barrage of fireworks into the sky in a computer coordinated display lasting 8 minutes. It was of a truly spectacular way to detonate over 1 million euros of explosive.

With the final thunderclaps echoing around the bay we popped open the bottle of bubbly I had carted up the hill and broke out the lamest rendition of Auld Lang Syne that would have turned the clocks back to 2021 if they hadn’t been suffering from temporary hearing loss.

Happy New Year!

We bade our farewells before edging down the pitch back hill to Avenida do Infantes which was already pretty much emptied of parked or moving traffic. In fact we saw very few people on the way back to our apartment. Where are all of these parties? Or has everyone gone home already?

After the party

Somebody is going to have some cleaning up to do tomorrow. All of this will happen magically and invisibly, as is the way in the magical festive bubble of Funchal. A lot of stuff gets organised and implemented here without any visible build up. Perhaps the wooden Christmas Elves in Jardim Municipal wait until the streets are dead before heading out to fill their sacks with party debris. I could think of nothing less fitting.


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 Explorer’s Legacy

Explorer Belt Certificate


In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…

In 1984 my Viking VSU walking partner Andy and I had planned and completed our Explorer Belt walk in the lowlands of the French Alps.

We made a few mistakes as was inevitable for such young inexperienced walkers. Our packing left something to be desired and we probably walked in heat we should have avoided, but we learned some lessons. We encountered setbacks such as the blisters that left us always playing catch-up, but we adapted and coped. In every important way we were successful and following completion of the August walk we handed in our project work.

On 22nd December Andy and I sat down for an EB interview with unit leader Pete. On 5th January 1985 leather Explorer Belts and paper Certificates were awarded to the teams at the Viking VSU Annual Awards Ceremony. Curiously the awards programme only lists 8 EB pairings compared to the 11 pairings referenced in the lead up to the expedition. Did three teams drop out?

Explorer Belt Certificate
Explorer Belt Certificate

The Explorer Belt Challenge is still going strong although the rules have moved on somewhat. Now you must be at least 16 years old, hitchhiking is specifically not allowed although the limited use of public transport is permissible, and “small teams” are now allowed (ie: more than just pairs)

It seems remarkable that this 15 year old teamed up with a 16 year old to plan and undertake such an expedition. It is more remarkable that we were allowed to. It’s hard to imagine that now. But I’m so glad that we did and credit must go to parents and particularly to our legendary VSU leader Pete for making it possible.

In 1984 I was an introverted self-absorbed teenager taking it all in my stride without perhaps fully appreciating the adventure at hand, but that’s the story of youth.

If I was undertaking the expedition today I would do a lot of things differently. There would be better planning and packing for sure but I would immerse myself wholeheartedly into the cultural aspects of the walk, take 1000 photos and blog in detail about the sights and experiences of the route. My diaries would reflect a much wider range of influences!

Photo observations:

  • Every single one of my photos was taken in portrait!
  • Only took 1 photo of me on entire trip! Pre-selfie era.
  • Routinely pointed camera at the wrong things partly due to complete lack of understanding of how photos will turn out once processed.
  • All of these shortcomings culminate in a paucity of visual material which actually add to the mystique of the trip. More is left to memory and imagination (although a few more/better photos would still have been nice!)

But my diaries and photos are as much about a 15 year old taking giant strides as about the miles, towns or people. In it’s own way the walk opened my mind to travel, adventure and independence. Without this I might not have travelled around Europe 3 times after university. I might not have walked the Cleveland Way. I might not be taking photos and writing about new experiences in my blog.

Realistically there was never much danger. There were no mobile phones and the world was a much larger place for everybody but we could look after ourselves and as strangers we were always treated with kindness and care by the people we met. I would prescribe a dose of adventure for all teenagers. Perceived if not actual danger is the key to opening up young minds and building self confidence in a world that has become overly protective.

Gateway To The Alps

Photo 2 - Grenoble across the river


In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Thursday 23rd August 1984

Rained all day! Tent soaked. Had crisps and bread for breakfast. Packed all the stuff so that we could move to a bar and write up the project. Waved goodbye to the English family and Parisian girl with them. Walked to café in rain, found Shaun and James already there. We worked and I played pool with James. We both lost to a crap table.

Shaun found Pete Berwick and Rich Bussell and they came to the bar too. Still pouring down. I went to get bread, cheese and wine and the pigs finished it all off. Returned into the rain to get more bread. Walked around Crest and chatted while we waited for Pete to pick us up. When Pete arrived we chatted about our expeditions on the minibus. Returned and found wet empty tent to sleep in. Cleaned it out. Andy and I slept there and tried to keep dry. Got to bed at 12:00

On this day:

  • Birth of Glen Johnson – England footballer
  • TOTP presented by Mike Read & Tommy Vance featuring Spandau Ballet & Tracey Ullman

Looking back on our diet it’s a miracle we made it at all. When you are young you can fuel up on anything. When I see kids today loading on carbs and energy drinks I might not like it but I have to remember what I was like at that age.

We had been very lucky with the weather. Yes it had been too hot much of the time but by dodging rain during our walk we avoided having to carry heavy wet tent fabric around.

One of the spectacular roads to Grenoble

Crest was the pick-up point for several walking parties and we all had stories to tell. In the space of 10 days I had opened my mind to many new experiences, gained confidence and an increase sense of independence. Notably I had developed the ability to not be travel sick again on the hairpin roads back to base camp in Grenoble.


The return to base camp represented a change in pace. It was damp and largely deserted as most of the other chaps were away mountaineering or white water canoeing. I had reluctantly signed up for canoeing because another activity was expected of me. I wasn’t really confident on fast moving water as my experience was limited to gentle rivers and swimming pools.

We had some high calibre canoeists in the unit. They returned by minibus from an outing and three of the craft had suffered catastrophic damage to their fibreglass hulls. I listened to tales of battle amidst the powerful mountain falls and of the lethal rocks that had slain the vessels and some protective headgear. Afterwards I made my excuses and didn’t get into a canoe for the rest of the expedition! Did I even get in a canoe again?

The next 6 days were occupied playing football with French kids, throwing Frisbee (somebody’s plastic camping plate) with other guys from the unit, exploring Grenoble and generally pitching in around the camp. In short, having fun in the alpine sun.

Photo 1 - View over Grenoble from the Bastille
Photo 1 – View over Grenoble from the Bastille

There isn’t that much to recall of the campsite itself but Grenoble – gateway to the Alps – sticks in my mind for the mountains, river and most of all the first cable car I had seen in real life. As it happens the first alpine style cable car to operate in Britain opened at the Heights of Abraham in Matlock Bath in 1984. After I left university I drove under it every day on the way to work for 2 years. I still haven’t been on it.

Photo 2 - Grenoble across the river
Photo 2 – Grenoble across the river

Cable car today in Grenoble…
Modern re-creation in street view

I only took one other photo in the city.

Photo 3 - Place St Andre
Photo 3 – Place St Andre

Pretty Place St Andre looking the same today
Modern re-creation in street view

On Thursday 30th August I left Grenoble with a sizeable contingent to spend a couple of nights in Paris after which we returned to derby via the overnight ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven ending three magical weeks of adventure.

Photo 1 Photo 1 – View over Grenoble from the Bastille
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Grenoble across the river
Photo 3 Street view of Photo 2 – Place St Andre

Explorer Belt Day 10 – Livron to Crest

Photo 1 - Livron Park
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Wednesday 22nd August 1984

Got up at 7am. Quickly packed stuff because bloke was mowing park. Got refund on bottles, bought and scoffed crisps and walked 6km to Allex. Rested there writing notes and drawing maps. Walked 10km to Crest.

Got information from police station and syndicat d’initiative. Camped, ate and met British family on holiday. Went for a 5km walk around Crest, met up with one of the Brits and his French friends and chatted at a bar. He is an ex-scout. I met the boules champion of France and then we moved onto another bar. Back at midnight.

On this day:
Another quiet news day. Here are some of the notable events of 1984…

  • Torvill & Dean win ice skating gold at the Winter Olympics
  • The Dr Who baton passes from Peter Davison to Colin Baker
  • TV debuts for Thomas the Tank Engine, The Bill and Crimewatch

Looking Back

In the morning I opened the tent door to find that a man on a large sit-on mower had covered the entire park in an ever decreasing circle almost up to our tent! I’m sure he would have stopped before mowing us down but to be sure we unpitched and moved aside so that he could complete his work. Lessons learned from camping in a public park…

Photo 1 - Livron Park
Photo 1 – Livron Park

I’m particularly pleased to have tracked down a relevant street view image, Clearly there wasn’t going to be a like for like image from the park but using satellite view I was able to look for a large building next to a grassy expanse and that’s how I located the building in the background of my selfie.
Modern re-creation in street view

This was our final day of walking. Lord knows how many packets of crisps I got through – they were superior to those at home.

It seems odd to walk into the police station at Crest and ask for information for our project but that’s what we did. People were just so accepting and helpful. We would have been urgently attempting to get the project work completed.

Crest is a reasonable sized town and the hilltop castle can be seen from miles around. The tower you can actually see is just the castle keep as the surrounding castle walls and buildings were destroyed on the orders of Louis XIII. Ownership passed into the hands of the town 4 years after our visit and the tower is now open to tourists.

Photo 2 - Tour de Crest
Photo 2 – Tour de Crest

This is what the same view looks like today
Modern re-creation in street view

As far as I can remember we didn’t touch a beer until this final night in Crest. I probably set out to explore on my own and just got chatting. When I was introduced to the French boules champion I was naturally sceptical but days later I saw a poster in Grenoble of a man holding boules that looked the guy so I guess it was true.

In retrospect this was the pinnacle of independence for me – a 15 year old in a bar in south France chatting to French people late into the evening. All because I went to explore the town. There’s much that has changed about me in the last 30 years but the seeds of exploration, the need to be curious, turn one more corner and ask one more question were evident way back then. The proper word is “nosy”.

In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 10.6 miles (17.0 km)

Start Livron-sur-Drôme
Via Allex
End Crest
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Livron Park
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Tour de Crest

Explorer Belt Day 9 – La Coucourde to Livron

Photo 1 - Hydroelectric Station
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Tuesday 21st August 1984

Got up at 7am as usual. Had ryvita and jam. Cat was the usual menace. Got stuff packed and asked family questions on school. Made notes. Left and we soon reached the hydro-electric station on river Rhone. After photos we walked about 10km to Le Pouzin. Bought yoghurt, bread and coke at shop. Drew maps etc.

Walked onto Loriol and Livron where we got police notes. Camped in a park. Mash peas and ravioli for food plus lemonade. Did yet more maps and stuck postcards onto paper. Got to bed at 10:30.

On this day:
In fact I can’t find reference to anything significant that happened on this exact day, but here are a couple of notable events from August 1984…

  • President Ronald Reagan, during a voice check for a radio broadcast remarks, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”.
  • The Discovery space shuttle launches for the first time

If you didn’t grow up with Ronald Reagan it’s hard to appreciate just how valuable he was to satirists of the time.

Looking back…

How, I wonder, would the diary of our generous host read?

Took sympathy on two pale English boys. They looked malnourished and limped due to blisters. Provided first aid and fruit, which they wolfed down like savages. In the morning they asked about our local schools. Strange creatures these English

The 8 mile walk to the HEP station ran alongside the river through a forested area. The route was deserted and a mangy looking dog trailed behind us for miles raising concern because it was clearly not right and there were signs warning of rabies. I picked up a stick in case it got too close but it stopped trailing us near to La Coucourde.

I captured a picture of the hydro-electric station at Saulce-sur-Rhone…

Photo 1 - Hydroelectric Station
Photo 1 – Hydroelectric Station

…another easy image to trace in the present day…
Modern re-creation in street view

The walking today was easy as we followed the flat banks of the Rhone. The power station sticks in my mind and is one of a number of distinctive buildings I photographed on our journey that has been relatively simple to trace on latter day google street view.

Photo 2 - The Rhone
Photo 2 – The Rhone

My attempts to photograph rivers are almost always a waste of time. I was probably attempting to capture the sun falling in the west over the far bank of the river.

At the outset of our walk the notion of pitching our tent in a park would have seemed adventurous. It’s a measure of our increasing confidence that we did so. Did we gain permission? It was a public space after all. Andy was more laid back than I was and may have persuaded me that it would be OK!

In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 14.4 miles (23.0 km)

Start La Coucourde
Via Le Pouzin
Via Loriol-sur-Drôme
End Livron-sur-Drôme
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Hydroelectric Station
Overnight Camping location

Explorer Belt Day 8 – Donzère to La Coucourde

Andy tending to feet in La Concourde
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Monday 20th August 1984

Left Donzère after a wash in warm water and no food. By sheer fluke we met up with Shaun Ince and James Outram who were also doing their Explorer Belt. They were also going to Montelimar. We walked the 13km to Montelimar and got information on police and town plan from Tourist Info centre. Bought crisps and wrote more on projects.

Left and walked north. Stopped by cops who wanted to see passports to check we weren’t crooks! Completed the 10.5km to La Concourde and found house to stay at. Pitched tent and only ate 3 peaches and 1½ melons provided by family. Mischievous cat kept going under the tent. Wrote log, drew maps and I revised route. Got to bed at 10:19.

PS: Visited nougat factory

On this day:

  • The miners strike: A single miner is escorted to work by 1000 police at Gascoigne Wood
  • Donkey Kong 3 released on Nintendo
  • The class 47 diesel/electric locomotive number 47264 was renumbered to 47619

Everyone remembers where they were when that class 47 loco was re-numbered! Heady days…

Looking back…

Our northerly route closely followed the river Rhône for much of the way. This meant easy level walking at the cost of much of the dramatic scenery we had encountered so far. If I remember correctly we came across Shaun and James walking ahead of us. Did we then walk together to Montelimar?

Why I took this street photo in Montelimar is unclear as it’s rather featureless. I have unsurprisingly been unable to find a Google street view match.

Street in Montelimar
Street in Montelimar

I had heard of Montelimar due to its nougat associations. The long road into the town was lined with hoardings advertising the sugary treat and there were many kiosks selling nougat nearer the town centre.

The nougat factory visit mentioned in my diary is beyond my recall. Was this in association with our project work? It could well have been opportunistic.

Modern re-creation in street view

In my diaries I keep referring to the completion of project work. This was investigative activity that was to be completed as the cultural aspect of the Explorer Belt challenge. I don’t recall the precise subject matter but believe it involved finding out about towns, schools and churches. It’s a surprise to learn that we were doing this en-route as I had assumed we did pretty much nothing on this until the last day or so. Either way it’s likely that Andy took on the bulk of the work (sorry Andy!)

A kind lady let us camp in her field and we were delighted when she offered us her freshly harvested fruit. The melon tasted like nectar after our long hot trek and was mightily appreciated. In the photo Andy is attending to serious blisters while the pesty cat looks on.

Andy tending to feet in La Coucourde
Andy tending to feet in La Coucourde

After we had pitched the tent the damn thing kept burrowing its way under the ground sheet while we were inside. The moving bump was amusing for a while but it wouldn’t stop and in the end I had to peg down every part of the inner tent to prevent access.

The comment about the revised route is interesting. Maybe I was plotting a new shorter route in light of time lost to blisters.

In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 16.3 miles (26.0 km)

Start Donzère
Via Montélimar
End La Coucourde
Location Street view of typical Nougat shop


Explorer Belt Day 7 – Valréas to Donzère

Photo 1 - Chateau de Grignan
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Sunday 19th August 1984

Up at 7:30. Tent full of ants more than ever before. Killed them all. Rushed, had ryvita and paste, then left by 8:30. Passed through Grillon and stopped in Grignan, Took photo of castle, bought almond slices, coke and postcard. Continued for a long way stopping only at Valaurie for drink. Odd place. A great load of houses massed on a small hill but none on the surrounding plains. Looks weird from the distance.

Somehow made it to Donzere with feet worse for the mileage. Found rotten campsite (stony ground). Saw the Rhone. Had savoury risotto, mousse and orange. Wrote project work and sellotaped tent like Fort Knox for ant security. Got to bed at 10:01.

PS: Got photo of a hen pecking round site. Beautiful sunset over river Rhone.

On this day:

  • Serving president Ronald Reagan was re-nominated by the Republicans
  • Actor Simon Bird (Will from the Inbetweeners) born on this day

You can’t talk about Reagan without thinking of Spitting Image…

The president’s brain is missing

Looking back…

I seem to remember that we hitched the 5 miles from Valreas to Grignan because I recall hauling my rucksack out of the back seat of a Peugeot 305 in the shadow of the castle only to discover a wet patch on the car rear seat where my aluminium water bottle had leaked. I was mortified by this given the kindness of our driver.

Here is my 1984 photo of the castle…

Photo 1 - Chateau de Grignan
Photo 1 – Chateau de Grignan

Grignan was spectacular and worthy of much more focus. One day…
Modern re-creation in Google street view

It would be nice to think that our route passed through the fairy-tale castle town of Grignan by design but it is more likely that we struck lucky. Regardless I seemed to be too busy stuffing almond slices into my face to appreciate the architecture. However, I wasn’t the only glutton…

All members of our expedition unit left home with emergency rations, to be opened in the event of some unthinkable misfortune on a mountain path, stuck down a pothole or beached on some remote river bank. Such forward thinking was rewarded when, struck down by terrible munchies on the cross-channel ferry, most scouts devoured their emergency rations in order to stave off inevitable starvation. This before we had even made it to the French coast.

We were both suffering from blisters but Andy was most affected and we were gaining confidence in hitching rides. That said I think we did complete the 11 mile walk from Grignan to Donzere, which would have at least burnt off the calories from our diet of junk.

Here’s a photo I took on the approaches to Valaurie “Odd” and “weird” were clumsy descriptions to say the least.

Photo 2 - approach to Valaurie
Photo 2 – approach to Valaurie

I can’t be 100% certain about this modern view but if you imagine that the road has been widened resulting in the loss of the telegraph poles then it looks like a good match.
Modern re-creation in Google street view

How differently I saw the world as a 15 year old. It was all about food and mundane events involving hens (I’ll spare you that picture) and ants. I was genuinely taken with the landscape and people but at the end of the day these rarely made my diary, while my camera was usually pointing at the wrong things.

One day I would like to retrace the trek (by car?) to fully appreciate stop-offs like Valaurie that were poorly served my diary or camera the first time around.

In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 17.3 miles (27.7 km)

Start Valréas
Via Grillon
Via Grignan
Via Valaurie
End Donzère
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Chateau de Grignan
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Approach to Valaurie

Explorer Belt Day 6 – Dieulefit to Valréas

Photo 1 - Chateau de Simiane
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Saturday 18th August 1984

Got up at 7:15 and had wash. Nobody else up on site until we left (except for on tennis courts). Had ryvita. Walked several km to Roche-Saint-Secret-Beconne and had drink there. Continued over a hot tiring route along dead straight roads. Went near Taulignan and Mont Brison but ended up in Valréas in late afternoon. Very worn out.

Campsite is OK but ground is too unstable for tent pegs (like concrete). Still, it seems to be free so who cares. Lemonade, half a roll of bread, veg stew and rice pud for dinner. Wrote log and did some of Project 8. Walked around site and saw lizards clinging to garden walls in high street. Got to bed at 9:56.

On this day:

  • Blackadder released in Norway where it is known as “Den sorte orm”. Apparently that translates as “The black worm”
  • Van Halen play at Monsters of Rock in Castle Donnington along with Ozzy Osborne, Van Halen, and AC/DC

I was all over Van Halen’s aptly named 1984 album at the time. Less into the hair and spandex though.

Looking back…

If you have ever been camping you will understand those early starts. In the south of France that August the sun rose woke us early and there was a window of time to get walking before things hotted up. Might we also have been attempting to leave before anyone asked for the camping fee?!

Having lost a day in Beaufort due to blister recovery we were always behind schedule. It is 16 miles from Dieulfit to Valréas and I’m pretty sure we walked the 7 miles to Roche-St-Secret-Beconne (what a great name!) before hitching a lift to Valréas to spare our feet. I had never hitched before but it was a necessity if we wanted to get back on track.

Scenery witnessed on the D538 from Dieulefit to Roche-St-Secret-Beconne

Andy had the confidence to stick a thumb out and we must have cast an innocent sight – 2 young pack packers on hot deserted roads. Nowhere in my diary does it mention hitching. Was this a teenage oversight (like the failure to mention any scenery) or was it due to a misplaced sense of guilt for what would at the time have felt like cheating?

I captured this photo in Valreas and my notes at the time describe it as a “weird building”

Photo 1 - Chateau de Simiane
Photo 1 – Chateau de Simiane

In fact this grand building dates from 1446 and is now home to the town hall and an art exhibition that would undoubtedly failed to inspire or impress this 15 year old.
Modern re-creation in street view

What of Valréas? This medieval town was purchased by the pope in 1317, possibly because he want to get his hands on some Côtes-du-rhône wine? Our approach to Valréas marked a transition to the flat plains of the Rhone valley and an end to most of the climbs and descents of the previous days. A great location for vineyards then.

Wikipedia has this to say about the geology of the region:

The Massif Central being a centerpiece of the Variscan orogen has undergone a rather complex geological evolution. Since its (diachronous) exhumation it has experienced very strong erosive peneplanation uncovering the polymetamorphic crystalline basement. Supracrustal sequences of sedimentary origin are strongly underrepresented and mainly occur along the periphery

I have no idea what any of that means except to say that it most likely explains why camping on stony ground was a recurring feature of our expedition. This was a nuisance because our tent did require a minimum number of pegs. In the years to come I would travel Europe with a flexible poled dome tent that could be pitched without pegs – particularly useful when you want to erect it on the deck of a passenger ferry in the Adriatic.

In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 13.8 miles (22.0 km)

Start Dieulefit
Via Roche-Saint-Secret-Béconne
End Valréas
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Chateau de Simiane
Overnight Suspected camping location

Explorer Belt Day 5 – Saou to Dieulefit

Photo 1 - Eglise St Roch
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Friday 17th August 1984

Awoke in a dry antless tent for once. Ryvita for breakfast after the usual washing ritual. Walked into Saou and took photo of church. Bought coke and cake. Walked 10km to Bourdeaux. Waited there for a bit and then walked a wicked 13km to Dieulfit in hot weather. Above 80 degrees as always. Exhausted so camped at a good site and watched nearby tennis at a tennis club. Very hot. Had ravioli, mash and French bread to eat. Was best meal yet.

Blisters accumulating on right heel. Walked around Dieulfit. Probably best day yet. Locals even play boules at night (saw some at 2am) for god knows what reason. Nice town, larger for the area in terms of population and size. Got to bed at 10:30

On this day:

  • Film Tightrope released, produced and starring Clint Eastwood

Looking back…

Did I really subsist on coke and cake?! I recall those iconic vintage tinted green curvy coke bottles that were sold all over the region out of red plastic crates. Back home it was all (now also classic) red and white cans.

Our food for the most part was dry in order to save weight. I have barely eaten ryvita since 1984 but it served the purpose at the time. Evening meals were mostly dry trekking packs which we poured into an aluminium pan and rehydrated with water before boiling over the meths fuelled trangia stove.

Some of the recipes sounded quite exotic and I remember thinking they tasted good although back then I also thought biscuits and coke tasted good. What an evening meal – carbs, carbs and more carbs! We were burning them off for sure.

It’s likely I was taking photos of churches in aid of one of our EB projects. In a sense that’s a shame because with a maximum of 36 photos to play with over my 3 weeks in France (!) it would have been better to capture more images of Andy, myself and the dramatic landscape. Anyway, here it is…

Photo 1 - Eglise St Roch
Photo 1 – Eglise St Roch

Rediscovering this photo on street-view was simple enough…
Modern re-creation in street view

It really was extremely hot and we were paying insufficient respect to the advice not to walk during the hottest part of the day. Was it any wonder we were both suffering with blisters? A 23km walk in relatively new walking boots, mostly along firm roads, carrying over-packed rucksacks was always likely to spell trouble in such circumstances.

Dieulefit was a dreamily pretty little town – the kind of place you might consider if looking to move and live in France. It is easy to bemoan a lack of photos or description in my accounts but we didn’t have that much time to explore each day, what with the walking, finding somewhere to camp, pitching up, cooking and washing up.

Ramshackle charm of Dieulefit

The tennis courts adjoined our campsite and it was fun watching club players compete to an entertaining standard. We saw lots of tennis courts during our hike. At least anything seems like lots when you almost never see one in Britain. Also there were numerous table tennis tables in people’s front yards.

Since I went to bed at 10:30 how did I know they were playing boules at 2am? Perhaps they were playing in the campsite and I visited the bathroom in the night? There are some mysteries that can’t be unravelled.

In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 14.1 miles (22.5 km)

Start Saou
Via Bourdeaux
End Dieulefit
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Eglise St Roch
Tennis club Tennis Club du Jabron
Overnight Camping at Le Domaine des Grand Pres

Explorer Belt Day 4 – Beaufort to Saou

Photo 2 - Eglise Square


In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Thursday 16th August 1984

Got up at 7am. Washed feet in river. Ate ryvita with paste and drank orange juice. Hung out tent to dry on some football posts. Said goodbye to our hosts and when all was packed we left and walked to Aoust at a steady pace. Get there at approximately 11:10. Sat in café writing log. Played on a pool table.

Continued our walk through scorching heat and a large valley to a campsite near Saou. Camped in windy area. Good facilities (toilets and showers). Had very good food. Savoury risotto, liquid mousse and tea. Wrote log. Took things easy. Got to bed at 10:11.

On this day:

  • Car designer John De Lorean is acquitted of drug related charges
  • NASA launches Ampte space probe
  • Top Of The Pops is presented by Steve Wright and features Tears For Fears & Howard Jones

Looking back…

My diary says that we washed in the river – it would have been mountain fresh not to mention mountain cold. Brrr! As for drying the tent that was the dew that greeted us each morning. The rising sun soon dried things out.

After yesterday’s blister enforced break it was good to be back on the road again. Our early start meant that we could cover a fair distance before the searing heat made the business of hiking uncomfortable from late morning to mid afternoon. This stretch was a pleasure as we followed the scenic valley south through farming and orchard land. If I ever go back I want to try the wine!

The attractive valley road from Beaufort to Aoust

All of these years later I would like to belatedly apologise to the residents of Aoust for the despicable crime that I committed while caught short. With nowhere to go I utilised a dilapidated hut by the side of the road. Only upon exiting this disused shack did I notice the bus timetable on the wall… Merde!

Looking at google maps the route from Aouste to Saou followed a rocky mountain ridge that must have been spectacular, especially during the descent into the valley east of Aoust. It is typical that I would fail to mention this while proclaiming the food. Perhaps that is the French way.

Approaches to Saou…

Photo 1 - Saou mountain outcrop
Photo 1 – Saou mountain outcrop

The same view today on google street view
Modern re-creation in street view

It seems that much of our walking was along roads. This would have put more stress upon us than path walking but is unsurprising given that the mountainous terrain would be unlikely to offer many choices of passage.

My photo of the church square in Saou clearly illustrates the mountainous setting. This is one of many stop-offs that I would love to visit again.

Photo 2 - Eglise Square
Photo 2 – Eglise Square

They have cleared the ivy but nothing else has changed
Modern re-creation in street view

Where did we camp in Saou? It’s not clear but there are a couple of nearby camp sites and one thing’s for sure – the views would have been incredible. Here’s the vista from Camping La Graville near to Saou…

The great outdoors!

I’m glad I have photos to refer to because my nonchalant diary entry might as well have me tramping through Milton Keynes.

In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 15.0 miles (24.0 km)

Start Beaufort sur-Gervanne
Via Aoust-sur-Sye
End Saou
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Saou mountain outcrop
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Eglise Square