2017, a year of travel in the rear view mirror

One exception not withstanding, 2017 has been a European year. It’s been a lot of fun exploring new destinations – Burgundy in France, Fruska Gora in Serbia and Granada’s Islamic heritage in Spain; but it’s been even more fun revisiting places I last visited many years ago – the Czech Republic’s Prague, Sweden’s glorious Stockholm, not to mention that one exception, Argentina. In between there have been trips to England and Scotland, as well as around the Netherlands – a country that really punches above its weight.

It’s been a fun year, thanks for joining me on the journey, and I wish you all the best of travels for 2018.

The cheesiest of Dutch towns, Alkmaar

Alkmaar is an attractive and historic town that has thrived on cheese production. The town’s famed cheese market has been around for over 400 years and, provided there’s a steady supply of tourists, it seems unlikely to end any time soon. It’s definitely one of the more touristy things you can do in the Netherlands, but a little bit of ‘cheese’ never did anyone any harm.

Summer and Winter in the English Lake District

I headed across the North Sea with my bike for company to take take part in the Fred Whitton Cycle Sportive in May, and took the opportunity to hike the Vale of Grasmere while the Bluebells were in full bloom. More recently, winter hikes across frozen winter landscapes have included The Old Man of Coniston and Crinkle Crags. Proof that the Lake District is best at any time of year.

Revisiting the delights of Stockholm

It’s taken me over a decade to make the short journey to Stockholm. One long weekend later and all I could think was “Why?” This is, without any doubt, one of Europe’s finest cities. Built across several islands and surrounded by water on all side, crossing from one neighbourhood to another feels like you’re entering a different city. Once famed for high prices, the costs no longer seem so prohibitive and the food has been through a revolution.

Prague, a glorious city blighted by modern tourism

I loved Prague when I first ventured here a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is still one of the great cities of Europe, but the toll modern tourism is taking on the historic city centre and the Prague Castle area is eye-wateringly painful to observe. There are still pockets of calm away from the tour groups, but this visit clashed badly with my trip 25-years earlier.

Ghiga and Arran, Island hopping in Scotland

At 9.5 kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide, Gigha was a huge surprise. Rugged and wild, with a peculiarly warm microclimate that makes it very hospitable, I’d never even heard of it before going to a friends wedding on the island. Afterwards we explored the much bigger Arran Isle with it’s wealth of ancient history. The weather was even good, well until the final day.

Wine tasting along the Grand Cru Routes of Burgundy

France is an extraordinary country for many different reasons, none more so that the sheer diversity of its regions. We made a couple of trips to France this year, including to the marvellous cathedral town of Reims, but it was the beautiful and historic Burgundy, and its magnificent capital, Dijon, that really captivated us – the wine was just an added benefit.

Painting the town red, yellow and blue for De Stijl

To mark the anniversary of the De Stijl art movement, the best known proponent of which was Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, The Hague transformed itself into  an open air gallery that saw entire buildings become huge canvases for the familiar red, yellow and blue Mondrian designs. Even the piano in Central Station got a makeover.

Going back in time in Serbia’s Fruska Gora National Park

Serbia has a long and troubled history, no more so than in recent years after the fall of communism, but it is a surprising, fascinating and friendly country that deserves more international tourists. I visited the historic city of Novi Sad, but it was the landscape and cultural history of the nearby Fruska Gora National Park that made the trip special.

Seville, the beating heart of Andalusia

Spain is one of my favourite countries to visit, Andalusia one of my favourite regions and Seville my absolute favourite town (well, maybe tied for first place with Madrid). It’s almost cliche to say Seville is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, but there’s no denying there is something going on. A vast wealth of history, coupled with a fabulous cultural heritage and some of Spain’s best food. What’s not to love?

The gorgeous medieval town of Cesky Kumlov

I loved my travels in the Czech Republic, but the remarkably well-preserved town of Cesky Kumlov was a real highlight. Nestled between bends of the Vltava River, the town feels like it hasn’t changed much since the 15th century. It also boasts a dramatic castle, and is home to lots of good hotels and restaurants.

Exploring fjords from historic Bergen

Bergen is a gloriously historic town set in the most picturesque landscape imaginable. Venture outside the town and you can quickly find yourself walking on the roof of the world with vast panoramas over the surrounding mountains and fjords. Or, take a train, a bus and a boat, and another two trains, to explore the magical Nærøyfjord and the Flam railway.

Into the Andes, the Argentinian Lake District

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Argentina a few times now, but had never been to the renowned Lake District region. A visit to San Martin de los Andes and Bariloche made up for that oversight, and opened our eyes to this truly magnificent region. A broken big toe prevented much hiking but our tiny hire car took us to extraordinary places all the same.

Exploring the Isle of Arran

The Isle of Arran is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’. This is thanks to the fact that the island seems to mirror the geographic division between the Lowlands and Highlands of mainland Scotland. Arran’s north is rugged and mountainous with a harsher climate; the south softer, more temperate and hospitable. No surprise then that the majority of Arran’s 4,600 inhabitants live in the southern half of the island.

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

We woke early in the village of Kildonan and went for a reviving stroll along the beach. The early morning light illuminated the beautiful views over the Firth of Clyde to two small islands off the coast, Pladda and Ailsa Craig. We spotted a couple of seals in the shallows, and there was a lot of birdlife. After a leisurely breakfast we took to the road again and slowly made our way towards Brodick.

Although not Arran’s largest village, and certainly not its most attractive, Brodick seems to be the island’s de facto capital. It has the ferry terminal that connects to the mainland, has the island’s only tourist information office and is home to the beautiful Brodick Castle. Impressive credentials but, much more importantly, Brodick has a fish and chip shop – the true mark of a capital ‘city’.

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

We found a B&B and went for a walk around the wide arc of Brodick Bay to visit the castle. The blue waters and sandy beach are impressively framed by the mountains of the interior – most notably Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak at 874m (2868ft). Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, Brodick Castle was the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, the most senior peerage in Scotland after the Dukedom of Rothesay – which is owned by Prince Charles, the Queen’s eldest son.

The current building dates from 1844, but there has been a castle on this strategically important spot since the early 13th century. The castle is currently being refurbished, earmarked to reopen in 2018, but the gardens are worth a visit in their own right. We had a wander around and then made our way back along the coast to the village. On a whim we decided to drive the route across the centre of the island, on a road known as The String which offers beautiful views.

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

The next day we dragged ourselves out of bed early for breakfast and the ferry linking Brodick with Ardrossan Harbour on the mainland. The weather can change in the blink of an eye in this part of the world, and the contrast between the sun and blue skies we’d been enjoying for the last few days couldn’t have been more stark. As we set off past ships moored in the harbour, it was raining hard. The world seemed drained of of light and colour.

Finally, true Scottish weather…

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Arriving in Ardrossan Harbour, Scotland

Arriving in Ardrossan Harbour, Scotland

Into the Firth of Clyde, the Isle of Arran

The view of the Isle of Arran from the tiny ferry terminal at Claonaig on the Kintyre Peninsula is nothing short of spectacular. Jagged layers of green-purple mountains dominate the north of the island, seemingly rearing straight up out of the Firth of Clyde. Looking east across the sparkling waters offers a dramatic perspective on the wild beauty of Arran’s landscapes.

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

Isle of Arran seen from Claonaig, Scotland

From Claonaig it’s a thirty-minute ferry journey across to Lochranza on the northern coast of Arran, and we sat on a small white sand beach and watched the ferry make its way across the water towards us. As you approach, the bay at Lochranza opens up to reveal a small village, and a ruined but picturesque castle nestling underneath a ring of hulking mountains. It’s one of the iconic sights of Arran and a great introduction to the island.

Lochranza Castle dates from the 13th century and has many famous associations. It’s claimed that this is where Robert the Bruce landed when he returned from exile in Ireland to seize the Scottish throne in 1307. A few years later he would reestablish an independent Scottish kingdom and the castle would become a royal hunting lodge. More contentiously, the castle is said to be the inspiration for the castle in the TinTin adventure, The Black Island.

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Lochranza, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Sitting on a spit of land on the edge of the water, it’s certainly a location worthy of such associations. We had a walk around the village but didn’t have time to take a tour and do a tasting at the Isle of Arran Distillery. We jumped back in the car and headed south on the coast road towards the one place I was desperate to see: Machrie Moor. This stretch of moorland is home to numerous prehistoric sites, including several stone circles and towering standing stones.

Human history on Arran dates back 8,000 years, and the standing stones and stone circles on Machrie Moor are around 4,000 – 5,000 years old. The moor is also home to burial cairns, which haven’t yet been excavated, and the remains of circular huts. The density of all these sites alone makes the moor one of Scotland’s most important prehistoric sites; the incredible landscapes in which they are set only adds to the sense of awe for modern-day visitors.

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

We wandered down a track through scenic countryside making discovery after discovery as we went. We found small stone circles, but off in the distance were much larger standing stones. This was clearly a site of great importance for the Neolithic peoples who inhabited the area. The moor is easily accessed from the main road, requiring only a twenty minute walk. Amazingly, we had the entire place to ourselves.

We made our way back to the car park and headed towards the most southerly point of Arran. There were incredible views of the coast and ocean as we passed through pretty hamlets. Eventually we stopped in Kildonan where we decided to spend the night. We watched the sun set over the water, with the distinctive islands of Pladda and Ailsa Craig acting as a backdrop. The quality of the evening light was extraordinary.

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Stone circles and standing stones, Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

Pladda and Ailsa Craig, Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland

The wild and remote Isle of Gigha

Even at its peak in the early 19th century, the wild and windswept Isle of Gigha off the West Coast of Scotland supported a community of less than six hundred people. Today, some two centuries later, the population of this Inner Hebridian island has shrunk to around one hundred and sixty people. That’s an improvement from the early 21st century when the population dipped below one hundred, and the island’s future seemed to be in the balance.

Ferry to Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Ferry to Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

The scattering of buildings that make up its main population centre, Ardminish, barely qualify as a village. Although it does have a hotel and pub. The rest of the inhabitants live scattered around the island in remote houses and farms. Although modernity has long arrived on the island, the sense of isolation and remoteness is overwhelming. The journey on the small Calmac ferry that connects the island with the mainland gives you a real sense of adventure.

Reaching Gigha involved a long drive from Glasgow, along the shores of Loch Lomond and down onto the Kintyre peninsular – made famous by Paul McCartney’s song ‘Mull of Kintyre’. We had time to admire the views across to Gigha before boarding the ferry. The dramatic-looking Paps of Jura loomed in the distance. The word ‘paps’ comes from the old Norse word meaning ‘breast’ and is, therefore, hilarious to British people. The breast-shaped hills dominate the skyline to the west.

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

If Gigha’s landscapes, golden beaches and surprisingly blue waters weren’t dramatic enough, its rollercoaster history is just as remarkable. Gigha is community owned these days. Its residents formed the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust to buy it from the previous owner in 2002. Like many Scottish islands, and vast swaths of the Highlands, Gigha has been inherited, bought and sold by wealthy landowners for centuries. The islanders had to pay £4 million for their independence.

It’s only a small island, 9.5 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide, but Gigha has seen more than its fair share of history. Largely thanks to its location on a vital sea route, human history can be traced back over 5,000 years. It goes back so far that its origins are shrouded in myth, neolithic standing stones only add to the mystery. In the 6th and 7th centuries, it was part of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata that covered parts of Scotland and Ireland, from which the Kings of Scotland claimed legitimacy well into the 18th century.

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Carragh an Tarbert standing stone, Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Carragh an Tarbert standing stone, Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

There is little recorded history until a few centuries later. One of the earliest records came in 1263 when the Norwegian King, Haakon, anchored his fleet here in an attempt to reassert control over his Scottish possessions. Scotland had been under Norwegian tutelage since the 11th century, but that ended in 1263 when the Scots defeated the Norse army at the Battle of Largs.

Between then and the purchase of the island by its inhabitants, came eight hundred years of turbulent and frequently violent history. Gigha was buffeted by the rival claims of different Scottish clans and the dizzying array of clan alliances that consumed Scotland in the medieval period and through to the Jacobite Rising of 1745. MacNeills, MacDonalds, Maclains, MacLeods, MacKinnons and MacQuarries all vied for control of the island.

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Paps of Jura and Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

Isle of Gigha, Scotland

We only had a short time on the island, to attend a wedding at the 19th century Achamore House. Famed for botanical gardens that thrive in the island’s mild micro-climate, the grounds of the house offer panoramic views west to the islands of Islay and Jura. In truth, had I not gone for the wedding, Gigha would still be shrouded in mystery. I’d heard of its bigger, whisky producing neighbours, but I’d never heard of Gigha before.

It was an eye-opening trip, one that has made me want to further explore the Hebrides, Inner and Outer – although I doubt the weather will be as accommodating as it was when we were on Gigha.