Walks on the GR221 around Soller, Majorca

Fresh orange juice, gnarled olive trees and a cloudless sky. Can I tempt you to walk the GR221?

The GR221, also known as the Dry Stone route, is an 87 mile trail that runs across the Serra de Tramuntana from Port d’Andratx to Pollença in Majorca. Although the GR221 is a relatively new route it often follows old cobbled paths between the olive terraces, hence its name.

Olive groves, GR221
Olive groves, GR221

Rather than walk the path in its entirety we based ourselves in Soller and spent three days combining parts of the trail with other local walks. We used a combination of the Sunflower Mallorca guide and a locally bought Soller 1:15000 hiking map and guide to plan our walks.

1. Deia to Soller (Sunflower guide – walk 13, 6.2 miles)

Our first walk on the GR221 was a great introduction to the trail.  It offered a variety of scenery; sea views, shaded woodland and olive groves. And cake.

From Soller we took the bus to Deia, a 25 minute ride up and over the windy hillside for the grand sum of 1.55 euros each. Some walkers choose to walk from Soller to Deia but there’s a risk the bus will be full on the return journey.

Cala de Deia
Cala de Deia

Leaving Deia we walked downhill towards the coast, diverting onto the GR221 before we reached the beach. If you’re following this walk I do recommend a detour down to the cove, Cala de Deia. We originally missed this out so returned a few days later to visit. There’s a couple of restaurants on the beach, one of which starred in The Night Manager back in 2016.

Leaving Deia on the GR221
Leaving Deia on the GR221

Back on the GR221 the path is straightforward and relatively easy going but you do need to keep your eyes on the ground as there are stones aplenty to trip you up.

Much of the early walk is in the shade, passing under holm oaks and beside huge boulders. We quickly became acquainted with the Spanish love of wire fencing and keep out signs.

Olive trees on the GR221
Olive trees on the GR221

About an hour after leaving Deia we reached my highlight of the walk, Son Mico Finca. Yes, a cake stop! We sat on the outside terrace and between us sampled chocolate and pear tart, lemon meringue pie and orange tart. All were amazing, but the coffee less so (stick to the orange juice). Be aware the toilet doesn’t have a sink so bring hand sanitiser.

Coffee and cake at Son Mico
Coffee and cake at Son Mico

After leaving Son Mico we walked down the cobbled path, eventually passing a 13th century chapel. According to the guidebook this is in ruins but it looked newly restored to me. Either that or we found the wrong chapel.

View from the GR221, near Soller
View from the GR221, near Soller

This walk is justifiably popular. This brings with it the very British problem of how to address walkers coming in the other direction. We stuck to Hola but after you realise most of the hikers are German it’s tempting to use Hallo. Actually, we always knew when Spanish hikers were approaching, they were the ones dressed in down jackets, hats and thick trousers!

Following the Cami des Rost to Soller
Following the Cami des Rost to Soller

Leaving the GR221 we took the path towards Soller, finally emerging on the town’s ring road. Despite the earlier cake there was still space for an ice cream so we headed into town to sample the locally made orange and lemon delicacies.

2. Es Barranc circuit (Sunflower guide – walk 17, 4 miles)

This was the shortest walk we followed in our Sunflower guide but it was quite tough going due to the combination of afternoon heat and a strenuous ascent. That said, the spectacular views made up for the extra effort.

From Soller we walked to the village of Biniaraix where we stopped for a drink in the village square. Leaving the shade behind we followed the GR221 Cami d’es Barranc for a few minutes, stopping frequently to admire the views back over the village.

Biniaraix, Majorca
Biniaraix, Majorca

The guidebook described a turn on to the Cami Vell a Cuber opposite a carob tree. This helpfully answered one of my son’s questions, namely what are the things on the floor that look like black banana skins? Answer, carob pods. Native to the Mediterranean the pods can be used as a substitute for chocolate; the pulp from the pods is ground to make locust bean gum.

Our path took us high above the ravine, zigzagging up through the olive trees and stone terraces. Another mystery required an answer. Why does every olive tree have a bottle hanging from it? Fortunely you can still get 4G in the mountains. Answer, they’re a deterrent for the olive fruit fly.

View from Cami Vell de Cuber
View from Cami Vell de Cuber

Our walking map offered a short diversion to Cova de ses Alfabies. Leaving the cobbled stone path we followed blue dots painted on stone to a large overhanging cliff where water drips from the ceiling into clay pots. These have somehow petrified into the rock; I’ve no idea how old they are but in my imagination they are of Roman origin!

Clay pot, Cova de ses Alfabies
Clay pot, Cova de ses Alfabies

Back on the olive terrace a new game was invented en route; guess the famous person. Potentially a minefield when your teens think famous people are social media and YouTube stars. Oh the generation gap.

After trekking uphill in the afternoon sun we finally crossed a pass and began to descend into some welcome shade, soon reaching a small waterfall. Time for a paddle and photo stop.

Waterfall, near GR221, Cami d’es Barranc
Waterfall, near GR221, Cami d’es Barranc

Heading downhill we rejoined the GR221 Cami d’es Barranc for the descent to Biniaraix. The path runs down the ravine beside a stream which was dry during our visit but must be spectacular after heavy rain.

Walking the Cami d’es Barranc
Walking the Cami d’es Barranc

Back in Biniaraix we stopped for another much needed drink. We’d drank all of our water by this time; this is definitely a consideration if you’re walking in the warmer months.

The road back into Soller took us past orange and lemon trees, flowering wisteria and the occasional cactus. Idyllic, although the lack of footpaths means you need to keep your wits about you!

3. Walk around Cuber reservoir to L’Ofre (Sunflower guide – walk 20, 7.4 miles)

This circular walk started from the car park at Cuber reservoir. We drove but it’s also possible to take the once daily bus (April to October) or a taxi. This is the easiest option if you want to walk the classic route down to Biniaraix.

Walking beside Cuber reservoir
Walking beside Cuber reservoir

From the car park there’s a great view of Puig Major, the highest mountain on Majorca. It’s off limit to walkers as it’s a military base, with a large bulbous radar tower on top. I can easily imagine it as a villain’s lair in a James Bond film!

Cuber reservoir, Majorca
Cuber reservoir, Majorca

On this walk the GR221, took us along the northern edge of the Cuber reservoir. The reservoir provides water to Palma so there are strict rules; no swimming, fishing or boating. The waters were crystal clear, albeit with fully grown trees emerging from it. I can only assume the water levels were higher than usual due to the winter rains.

As we walked a couple of red kites flew above us. Impressive, but as we live in Oxfordshire we’re used to seeing these birds. Instead we were on the lookout for a much larger bird, the black vulture.

Walking from Cuber reservoir to Coll de L’Ofre
Walking from Cuber reservoir to Coll de L’Ofre

Leaving the far end of the reservoir we walked up to the Coll de L’Ofre. From here’s the GR221 descends to the Barranco de Biniaraix. However we were off to climb L’Ofre, a 3579ft peak.

If you ask a child (or indeed me) to draw a mountain they’ll probably come up with something that resembles L’Ofre. Seen from Soller it’s easily identified as it’s an almost perfect cone shape.

View from Coll de L’Ofre
View from Coll de L’Ofre

After traversing around L’Ofre we started our ascent. There is a path, of sorts, up through the rosemary bushes marked by small cairns and blue dots. There are a couple of hands on rock sections. And, for me, bum on rock going down.

By now we’d seen a couple of black vultures soaring high above nearby mountains. Halfway up L’Ofre they chose to glide directly over us, what an amazing experience. These vultures are the largest raptors in Europe and were bought back from the brink of extinction in the 1980s.

View from summit of L’Ofre, Majorca
View from summit of L’Ofre, Majorca

It’s difficult to decide whether the views from the summit or the vultures were the highlight of this walk. Up top Cuber reservoir sparkled in the distance and all of the surrounding peaks were cloud free.

Descent from Coll de L’Ofre
Descent from Coll de L’Ofre

We ate our picnic after descending to the main path. My son was mesmerised throughout by a large scarab beetle rolling sheep dung. Even more so when he managed to video it falling off the edge of a rock still holding on to the dung. Hilarious if you’re a 13 year old boy.

We returned to our car via the opposite side of the reservoir, accompanied by the sound of sheep bells. Photographs are great but it’s the tinkle of sheep bells and the smell of citrus groves that will forever remind me of our Majorcan holiday.

More info:

  • We found Soller an excellent base; plenty of tourist facilities but a working town too. We stayed in a centrally located Airbnb flat overlooking a small orange grove. The citrus aroma from our balcony  was divine!
  • Spring and autumn are the best times for a walking holiday. Temperatures in April ranged from 16-22C although nights were chilly.

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A wander in and around Ewelme, Oxfordshire

Although I’m happy living in a town there are days when I imagine upping sticks and moving to a village. Not just any village though. It would have to be one with a thriving community, plenty of amenities and postcard pretty houses. A village like Ewelme. But I’d probably need to win the lottery first.

In the meantime there’s no harm in window shopping. Checking out the houses, deciding whether the locals are friendly and monitoring the cake quality in the village cafe.

Aside from sheer nosiness we were in Ewelme to walk another route from our AA 50 Oxfordshire walks book. The four mile Ewelme Chaucer’s walk was the perfect distance for a late morning stroll, and just the thing to work up an appetite for lunch. I’d even learnt from our mistake the previous month and came equipped with an OS map, no getting lost this time!

The walk started and finished in Ewelme, with a circular route that attempts to take in many of the local long distance trails. This included parts of the 65 mile Swan’s Way, the 125 mile Chiltern Way and the 110 mile Icknield Way Trail. Makes my feet ache just thinking about them.

Chiltern Way, near Ewelme
Chiltern Way, near Ewelme

Truth be told it wasn’t the most exciting of walks. Out in the countryside everything had that late winter feel. The mud, bare trees and grey sky didn’t help. And it was cold, so very cold. There’s joy in a winter landscape but in March I want spring sunshine, lambs and blossom.

Instead the star of this walk was Ewelme itself.

Ewelme village store

Starting with the village store. Perhaps not an obvious visitor attraction, Ewelme’s community run village store is well worth visiting. Primarily for its small cafe. It’s nothing fancy, simple rolls, soup and cake, but netherless it was busy on a Sunday morning with family groups and cyclists. The shop itself was packed with a variety of fresh food, household basics, local products and quirky gifts. It’s not surprising it won a best store in the south east award last year.

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The watercress beds

Ewelme is famous for its watercress beds, which flow through the village for almost a mile. This was once a thriving business, producing watercress for over a hundred years before its closure in the 1980s. The beds became overgrown and the site derelict until villagers helped with their restoration and the Chiltern Society purchased the land.

Watercress beds, Ewelme
Watercress beds, Ewelme

Nowadays the beds are run partly as a historical site and partly as a nature reserve, with open days and talks on the first Sunday of each month. Although the watercress is no longer sold commercially (due to strict water regulations) the water looked crystal clear and the beds well maintained. Not that there was much watercress growing in March!

Saint Mary the Virgin church, Ewelme

From the watercress beds it’s a five minute walk, past the duck pond (another tick on my village requirements list), up a steep slope to the church and almshouses.

Inside the church are the tombs of Thomas Chaucer and Alice de la Pole, family of the poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer. I love reading but have never tackled his works; I fear I would be well out of my literary depth.

Saint Mary the Virgin church, Ewelme
Saint Mary the Virgin church, Ewelme

Outside there are more literary connections. The graveyard is the final resting place of Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat. I resorted to Wikipedia to find out more about him. An English writer and humourist he sounds like the Tony Hawks of the Victorian era (hope I’m not doing either a misjustice). And the K in his name stands for Klapka. What did we do before Wikipedia?

Jerome K. Jerome’s grave, Ewelme
Jerome K. Jerome’s grave, Ewelme

Lastly, and most excitingly for me, the church was also used as a filming location for Les Miserables. Two hundred and fifty crew descended on the village for five days to film three sequences (in the mayor’s office, the tavern and home of the Bishop of Digne). I can only imagine the excitement that would have caused!

From the church we walked back to the car park, passing the primary school. Built in 1487 it’s the oldest functioning maintained school in the country.

Ewelme Primary School
Ewelme Primary School

The PTA runs Sunday afternoon teas in the school once a month between March and September. Between these, cake at the watercress bed open days and the village cafe I think my cake requirements would be met living in Ewelme!

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Walk 1000 miles challenge: February 2018

During 2018 I’m taking part in the Country Walking #walk1000 miles challenge. Some months I’ll be doing proper walks in the mountains. But in February the walks were of a gentler nature. Strolls even.

There were two over-riding themes to the month – snowdrop walks and city sightseeing.

Snowdrop walks

February is snowdrop month. I cannot resist the lure of a snowdrop stroll. And, even better, they often come as a package, with coffee and cake.

Snowdrops and celandines at Welford Park
Snowdrops and celandines at Welford Park

The granddaddy of snowdrop locations in our area is at Welford Park, near Newbury. If you want to see a woodland full of snowdrops this is the place to come. It’s also full of people. Luckily the snowdrops are fenced off to stop the masses trampling them.

Welford snowdrops
Welford snowdrops

There’s another side to Welford’s fame too as later in the spring it becomes the filming location for the Great British Bake Off. As befits the GBBO location I’m pleased to report I had an excellent piece of fruit cake after our walk.

Braziers Park
Braziers Park

The snowdrops on our next walk at Braziers Park are on a much smaller scale than Welford. More of a side show really. Braziers Park is a community run mansion house, once lived in by Ian Fleming. Nowadays the volunteers and long term residents look after 55 acres of land, maintain the house and host courses and events.

The guided tour around the house (yes, I counted these steps) provided an interesting peep into life at Braziers Park. I think perhaps I’m too happy with my comfortable life to consider alternative living these days.

Afterwards we walked through the gardens and woodland. An unexpected hail storm blew in so we hid behind trees whilst the icy white stones bounced around us.

Fungi at Braziers Park
Fungi at Braziers Park

Last but not least, we visited Milton Manor. There were only a few snowdrops left so the main attraction turned out to be more cake. And walking through a field with llamas in.

Rope bridge, Milton Manor
Rope bridge, Milton Manor

Dotted throughout the grounds are a variety of play areas, including home made forts and tree houses. I’m not sure Health & Safety would approve but the estate grounds offer a Famous Five type of existence for children. The ‘Teenagers only’ rope bridge looked great fun!

Ghent sightseeing

Away from the snowdrops we managed some impressive miles on our half term trip to Ghent in Belguim. We walked 18 miles during our two full days of sightseeing.

The three towers, Ghent
The three towers, Ghent

It’s a perfect city for walking. Aside from trams and bicycles traffic is limited in the centre. And it’s flat. Pop over and read more about things to do in Ghent with your family.

Beacon Hill, Hampshire

I’ve driven past Beacon Hill many times whilst travelling north on the A34, but have only just got around to climbing it. On the summit, at 860ft, is Lord Carnarvon’s grave. Together with Howard Carter he famously discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s. His subsequent death, from an infected mosquito bite, contributed to the story of the Curse of Tutankhamun. The summit offers fine views of Lord Carnarvon’s pile, Highclere Castle, better known to TV viewers as Downton Abbey.

Trig point on Beacon Hill, Berkshire
Trig point on Beacon Hill, Berkshire

After climbing Beacon Hill we attempted the High above Highclere Walk from the AA website. I’m a fan of the AA walk books but learnt the hard way that it’s best to take an OS map too rather than rely on basic diagrams. Yes, we got lost. On the positive side, it meant we walked further than I’d originally planned!

Chalk pits,  Blewbury

View from the Chalk Pits, Blewbury
View from the Chalk Pits, Blewbury

Our final February walk was an after lunch stroll to the viewpoint overlooking Blewbury, a local village. A very muddy climb up past an old chalk quarry to a well placed bench. Our walk back to the village took us past a Grand Designs style house building project. Wow.

Mileage totals

I hit my monthly mileage target!

Total mileage in February: 99.25 miles

Running total for 2018: 168.6 miles

Pop over to my first blog about the #walk1000 miles challenge if you’d like to read more about my January walks.

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15 things to do with the family in Ghent, Belgium

After the success of our short break to Lille a while back I was keen to explore other destinations  accessible via Eurostar. Ghent fitted the bill perfectly; a Belgian city just a couple of hours from London.

What did we do in Ghent?

We travelled as a family of  four; two adults and two teenagers. With this in mind you’ll appreciate our sightseeing and food choices were attuned to pleasing the whole family. Or attempting to at least!

View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent
View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent

So, how did we spend our time?

1. Climb the Belfry

I always make a beeline for the highest viewpoint in any new city. In Ghent it’s the 91 metre belfry, the highest one in Belguim.

View from Ghent belfry
View from Ghent belfry

A lift can take you part of the way up but we climbed the steps (to offset the waffles later). At the top there’s a 360 degree viewing platform with excellent views over the town centre, churches and cathedral. You’ll also discover how much building work is happening in the city.

View from the Belfry, Ghent
View from the Belfry, Ghent

Aside from the views check out the Roeland Bell (which was chimed to warn of approaching enemies) and listen to the carillon which plays every 15 minutes.

2. Wander the streets around Graslei and Korenlei

In the Middle Ages this area was a busy port and the centre of the Flanders grain trade. Nowadays it’s tourism central but for good reason; cobbled streets, historical buildings and, in the summer at least, pavement cafes. It’s a good place to take a boat tour or simply wander.

Korenlei
Korenlei

After dark it’s a completely different view with the illuminated buildings reflected in the water. Visit it as part of the Ghent light tour (see below).

3. Visit Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)

This medieval fortress has seen many changes of use in its lifetime. From the seat of the Council of Flanders to a prison to cotton mills; at one point it was even going to be demolished and the land sold for development. Fortunately saved by locals it was restored extensively and is now one of Ghent’s main attractions.

Gravensteen - Castle of the Counts
Gravensteen – Castle of the Counts

Don’t expect lavish decorations inside the castle. For me the appeal was very much around the physical architecture, the towers, turrets and staircases. Although, thanks to those restorations, it was rather weird to walk up a heated staircase; the last thing you expect in a castle.

One room that is decorated, in a macabre way, houses the torture equipment. A reminder of the castle’s gruesome history. I found this fascinating but you might want to avoid it if you have younger children.

4. Ghent by light

We missed the Ghent Light Festival by a few days. Held every three years this would have been a spectacular sight but sadly it didn’t correspond with half term.

Ghent belfry at night
Ghent belfry at night

Even though we’d missed the festival Ghent illuminates many of its key buildings and monuments after dark, making an evening stroll obligatory. We followed the route on the Ghent light plan which took us to parts of the city we hadn’t seen in daylight. I highly recommend the walk but wrap up warm in winter.

5. Eat frites with mayo

A Belgian classic. We got ours from De Frietketel, a student hangout famous for its fries and burgers. Oh my word, the portion size! We ordered two small portions with mayo between the four of us and couldn’t even finish one portion.

It’s not haute cuisine but is tasty and cheap. Veggies and vegans can have their fill of junk food too; there are loads of options for non meat eaters. Indeed Ghent is known as the veggie capital of Europe.

6. Discover the city history at Stadsmuseum Gent (STAM)

I really enjoyed STAM, a museum covering the history of Ghent. I’d suggest visiting as early as possible during your visit to get an overview of the city. I’ve chosen my highlights below.

City map, STAM, Ghent
City map, STAM, Ghent

The first room houses a huge map of Ghent printed on the floor. Once you’ve donned protective shoe covers visitors ca walk across it. It gives a sense of scale and geography of the city, particularly outside of the main tourist area.

The museum also includes a room dedicated to the Ghent Altarpiece (evidently one of Europe’s premier art works) which is in St Bavo’s Cathedral. I discovered it’s the most frequently stolen artwork of all time. Indeed following the most recent theft in 1934 one of the panels is still missing. It was really interesting to read about the police investigation and conspiracy theories, even if, ahem, we didn’t visit the actual painting whilst in Ghent.

Lego building, STAM, Ghent
Lego building, STAM, Ghent

The family dived into the huge pile of white Lego bricks left out for visitors to enjoy. Experts can attempt to recreate Ghent’s towers. Mere mortals can build small block houses.

7. Enjoy some warmth at the Botanic garden

If, like me, you prefer warm weather then head for the greenhouses at the University botanical gardens. It’s a little way out of the city centre but you can combine it with a walk through Citadelpark.

Botanic garden, Ghent
Botanic garden, Ghent

The outside garden didn’t contain a huge amount of interest in February but there was plenty to see inside the tropical and sub-tropical greenhouses – and they were warm!

8. Eat waffles

Another Belgian speciality. I realised halfway through my chocolate and cream covered concoction that I’d never eaten waffles in Belguim. It bore no resemblance to any waffle I’ve ever eaten before. It was sweet, light and slightly chewy, delicious!

Waffles cost a couple of euros from most street vendors, more if you cover them in melted Nutella. Ignore the calories, you’re on holiday.

9. Saviour the view from St Michael’s Bridge

The three towers, Ghent
The three towers, Ghent

This is the quintessential Ghent view, described as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. Or, in non-tourist talk, it’s the opportunity to see three towers in a row; those of the Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church. I think it’s the one picture all tourists attempt to take even if it does mean getting mown down by a bus whilst you’re standing in the road.

10. Wander the streets around Patershol

This trendy neighbourhood is a small area of cobbled streets and restored houses. A place to wander aimlessly.

Cobbled streets of Ghent
Cobbled streets of Ghent

We visited during the afternoon when it was very quiet. Lovely to look at but almost deserted. I assume the restaurants liven things up in the evenings.

11. See the vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey

We stopped here on our walk back from the botanical garden as I wanted to see another city centre garden.

Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent
Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent

This garden is unique as it contains a vineyard. In the middle of a city. Although only planted in the 1980s there are references to earlier vineyards onsite from the 9th Century. The monks must have loved their wine. I wonder what it tasted like?

12. Graffiti street, off Hoogpoort

This is a pedestrianised alleyway full of graffiti which gives you a break from the medieval-ness of Ghent. It is as its name says; full of tags rather than street art. The teens liked it.

Graffiti street, Ghent
Graffiti street, Ghent

13. Ride a tram

Ghent tram
Ghent tram

The centre of Ghent is easily walkable so there’s no great need to use the trams. However my son was desperate to ride one so we took a tram to the railway station on our final day. It would have been cheaper to use a taxi but nowhere near as novel.

14. Little noses (cuberdons)

Cuberdons, Ghent noses
Cuberdons, Ghent noses

These cone shaped sweets (like noses) are a Ghent speciality. You can buy them for around 3-5 euros from street vendors. Fruit flavoured, with a hard shell and soft filling, they were an acquired taste but my son insisted he liked them.

15. Visit the cathedrals and churches

I’m not religious but do appreciate the history and architecture of churches, particularly ones as huge and ornate as those in Ghent. That said, with teens in tow visiting the cathedrals and churches was never going to be top of the sightseeing list.

St Peter’s church, Ghent
St Peter’s church, Ghent

Despite this we visited St Bavo’s Cathedral, where we spotted a whale skeleton but missed out the Ghent Altarpiece.

We also popped into St Peter’s church (next to the Abbey) and admired several others from outside.

Ghent – the verdict

We loved Ghent and I’d highly recommend it as a short break destination. We easily filled two full days with sightseeing. Another day, or even two, would have been ideal so we could see more museums and perhaps take a boat tour.

View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent
View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent

Ghent isn’t as overtly pretty as Bruges but I preferred it. There are far fewer tourists (in February at least) but lots of students which gives it a different feel.

More info:

  • We travelled by Eurostar to Brussels. From Brussels we took a train to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station. The train takes about 30 minutes; we’d already bought a Eurostar ticket which was valid to any Belgium station so there was no need to purchase a separate ticket.
  • We stayed in a studio apartment which you can see on the Stay at Ghent website. The second floor duplex studio was perfect for us but had a mezzanine and is reached via a steep staircase so not suitable for those with mobility difficulties or young children.
  • Belguim has two official languages; Flemish and French. Whilst I can get by in French Ghent is in the Flemish speaking area. It pains me to say but you’re better off speaking English.
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