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Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Northern Lights in Iceland and Scotland

In a world full of man-made creations and a fast pace of life, sometimes we need to step back, slow down and marvel at some of the world’s breathtaking natural wonders.

The Northern Lights – also known as the Aurora Borealis – are the epitome of natural wonders and 2012 is one of the best years to witness this natural phenomenon as NASA predicts the strongest Northern Lights activity in 50 years.

So, what are the Northern Lights?

To put it as simply as possible, the lights occur when electrically-charged particles from the sun are blown towards the Earth in solar winds. These particles then collide with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a display of colourful lights that can be seen near the Earth’s magnetic poles. The colour of the light display depends on the gases and the distance above the Earth’s surface. Blue or purple lights: less than 120km, green or yellow lights: 120km-150km, and red lights: more than 150km.

Where can they be seen?

Like any other natural phenomenon, the exact place and time of sightings of the Northern Lights can be hard to predict, but the main places to see them are in the northern hemisphere in destinations such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Greenland, Alaska and north-western parts of Canada.

Iceland

In my hunt for the Northern Lights, my first stop was Iceland; a fascinating country with many beautiful natural sights such as the cascading Gullfoss Waterfalls, the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, the spurting Great Geysir, Humpback, Minke and Blue whales in the bay of Reykjavik, and geothermal pools and spas such as the Blue Lagoon.

I was staying in Fosshotel Lind, a comfortable three-star hotel situated in the centre of Reykjavik just a few minutes’ walk from Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street.

Situated just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the best places to view the Northern Lights. Despite bad weather during most of my trip in Reykjavik, we perservered and on the last night a Reykjavik Excursions coach picked me up from my hotel and headed in convoy with twelve other coaches south of the city where it had been reported that the cloud was finally clearing. Northern Lights Tour starts from €33 per person.

I stood with the other hopefuls next to a beach on the south-east coast of Iceland staring up at the sky and willing the clouds to break and clear the path for the lights.

One hour later, the disheartened among us started heading back to the warmth of the coach when suddenly a man shouted “They’re coming!”.

Excitement rippled through the crowd and sure enough, the clouds had cleared to reveal a cluster of sparkling stars and a strip of vibrant green Northern Lights as they danced across the black sky.

If there is ever a time when a human can be made to feel like a tiny ant on this vast planet, it is while witnessing an impressive display of solar activity. They appeared to be putting on a show for their audience as they jumped and darted across the velvety sky before gradually fading into the atmosphere.

Scotland

Scotland was my other destination in my brief chase of the Aurora Borealis and though it might not have been regarded as one of the top spots for Northern Lights sightings in the past, recent images and media coverage have revealed some stunning displays that have already taken place this winter.

The Isle of Eriska is a beautiful private island in the Scottish highlands, close to Oban, that features a five-star Eriska Hotel, 3AA Rosettes restaurant and a golf course that is situated on the shores of the loch against a backdrop of majestic hills and snow-capped mountains.

The island’s isolated position enables it to be a fantastic viewing point for the Northern Lights and because it has no surrounding light pollution, guests will have a higher chance of seeing a spectacular light show within a tranquil and natural environment.

From West Scotland, I headed north-east on the train to the town of Wick after hearing that the lights had been spotted in a magnificent display the week before. This charming estuary town is home to cobbled streets dotted with cafes, bookshops and gift shops.

My accommodation was the Norseman Hotel located on the banks of the River Wick and was pictured in one of the breathtaking images that captured the Northern Lights at the end of January.

Despite not seeing the Northern Lights during my trip to Scotland, I was reassured when the receptionist of the Norseman showed me the recent photos that revealed a surreal crescent-shaped display of vivid green shades above Wick’s church and river.

The Northern Lights are one of the most magical examples of Mother Nature’s handiwork and a trip to encounter these beautiful mesmerising lights should be promptly added to your list of holiday destinations.

Top Tip

You will have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights if:

  • you are in an area away from light pollution;
  • avoid a full moon and cloudy skies;
  • use a digital camera with an ISO setting of 1600 and remember to turn the flash off;
  • and wrap up warm – it could be a long wait.

The Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight can best be described as Britain’s Own “sunshine island” with temperatures and sunshine not only amongst the best to be found in the UK but often warmer than places such as Corfu.

This was what I found at the end of May when the local radio station proudly announced on my third day that temperatures would be hotter than islands in the Med!

It was a nostalgic return visit for my wife and I having last visited the Isle of Wight 34 years ago.

What dramatic changes would we find?

Would the island be as “inviting” as we had found it way back in the 1970’s. The answer was simple. It was as nice. There had not been too many changes although admittedly there were a few more cars! But one of the joys of the Isle of Wight is that traffic is to some extent “regulated” by space on the three car ferry routes linking the island with the mainland.

The character of the charming small villages scattered throughout the island remained unspoilt. Traditional English tea gardens with cream teas, home made cakes and teapots with “proper” cups and saucers. None of your cheaper, plastic rubbish here!

Godshill with its thatched cottages, tastefully presented visitor shops and “village in miniature” attraction remained a firm favourite and required three separate visits during the week!

The coloured sands of Alum Bay and The Needles had to be a “must” for an all-day visit to the furthermost southerly tip of the Isle of Wight. To work off those “extra inches” added from the cream teas we decided to walk both down and up the 189 steps from the top car park to the beach. For those looking for easy access there is a fairly modern chair-lift which was good value at just £4.00 return. We found you could no longer collect your own coloured sands at beach level but instead had to go to the shop, purchase a container (of various shapes and sizes) and fill your own from tubs of the different colours. You can also purchase ready-filled shapes for little extra money.

One surprising change on the island, possibly due to climate “warming”, was two vineyards. We visited Rossiters on our return drive from Alum Bay as it was conveniently located between Freshwater and Newbridge and were offered a tasting before deciding which – if any – of the red and whites on offer.

From German Dornfelder Red to Madeleine Angevine (1859) there was a good choice to be found and although best described as “young” the wines were quite acceptable and we returned with a “few” bottles! I suppose finding wine on the Island should not have come as that much of a surprise as the Romans were here nearly 2,000 years ago. There is an extremely interesting Roman Villa to be found at Brading and as the Romans enjoyed their wine I could well understand why!

Families will not be disappointed if selecting the Island for their family holiday. With clear blue sea water; famous golden sands; two zoos and numerous attractions on the Piers at resorts such as Sandown and Shanklin, there is sufficient to keep the youngsters happy.

For steam railway buffs there is the enchanting steam railway and museum at Haven Street and its runs daily from mid-June until mid-September with special days before and after these dates. The track runs from Wootton to the mainline connection at Smallbrook Junction and is a memorable trip back in time.

For gardeners amongst you the island has plenty to see and a visit to the Garlic Farm at Newchurch is a “must”. No fewer than 40 different pickles and relishes all made from garlic produced on the farm and you can also take home your own garlic growing pack.

My wife and I stayed at Sandown at St. Catherine’s Hotel [Editor’s note 18 March 2016: this hotel is no longer trading]; just 10 minutes walk from the seafront but located in a quiet part of town with the advantage of having its own car park. Food was excellent and en suite accommodation could not be faulted. After a filling three course dinner it was nice to leave the car behind and walk down to the promenade for some refreshing evening air before retiring for an excellent night’s sleep.

A visit to the Isle of Wight would not be complete without a visit to Queen Victoria’s favourite summer retreat – Osborne House – just outside Cowes. From the car park we took a horse-drawn carriage ride (only 0.50p each) to the main residence and spent an intriguing three hours visiting the various rooms and gardens. It was quite an eye opener to catch up on the history of Queen Victoria, her large family, and how and where various “off-spring” had ended up.

We had chosen the ferry route between Southampton and East Cowes and it was a sad moment when it was time to depart on the Saturday. But the hour-long crossing of the Solent and up Southampton Water gave us plenty of time to reflect on the numerous fascinations the Island holds.

And guess what. As we came into Southampton (West Quay) it was RAINING! And we had just spent a glorious seven days in sunshine and temperatures in the upper 20’s!

Holiday in the Basque Country

The Basques are a mystical people of small numbers with obscure origins, a painful, bloody history and an ancient tongue (Euskera) which bears no relation to any other language on Earth.

For millennia they have made the hostile snow-capped peaks and grassy troughs of the French and Spanish Pyrenean Mountain sweep their home.

We had ventured high into the bracken-carpeted mountains near the Ugly Cliffs to the traditional shepherding and smuggler paths that skirted and crisscrossed la frontera (the border) between France and Spain.

Joining us on the hike was corn throwing champion, Maika, a mother-of-two and a farmer of 60 hectares of inherited land, Georgina, and our heart-warming guide Jexux Lizarribar, 55, who knew the area better than the back of his Basque hand.

We passed ancient dolmens (2,000 year-old stone markers) before slipping off the beaten path, following Jexux’ trusty footsteps: “If you like the mountains and you are used to walking, you will see there are too many markers here and those who aren’t used to the area follow the markers and get lost,” said Jexux, pointing to a red splodge of paint on a large pebble.

And soon enough we came across a group of French walkers who had lost one of their party. Being part of the Pyrenean Experience group and walking in the knowledge of Jexux and Maika was already proving to be invaluable.

We found a clearing on a precipice in Spain, overlooking France, and leisurely lunched on sheep’s cheese and quince jam before walking to gawk at the Griffon Vultures nesting in their natural habitat.

“I could live here,” said David, a fellow tourist and a Basque-ophile. They are some of the nicest people I have met in my life,” he said after a lunch of freshly ground corn talos and Basque cider, with a local miller.

Our evenings were spent on the pretty patio of Casa Latxaberria, discussing the days past and the days ahead over limitless wine, Patxarran and hearty fare whipped up by tiptop cook Delfina.

We visited Zugarramurdi, made famous for its witchcraft and heavily persecuted during the Inquisition of the early 1600’s when many women were taken away to be burnt at the stake. “A lot of Basque houses face East, and you may still find a sunflower on doors to frighten away the witches, as well as crosses of laurel leaves,” said Georgina, gesturing to two terraced cottages displaying both.

In the Witches Museum in the town, the names of those burnt are displayed in an eerie exhibition; ranging from Gracia Miguel, aged seven, from Uztarroz, to Juanes de Goizueta, 40, from Oyarzun – all killed for allegedly using herbal medicines, keeping toads as pets, and holding covens in the nearby caves.

On other days we walked to burial sites which date back to almost 3,000 BC, walked a small section of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, huddled in a shepherd’s log-store for lunch, laughed heartily with Basque locals as if they were close friends and listened to Basque ballads of how life passes us by.

And the week did fly by, as it tends to do when you’re having fun: “Come on Alfonso,” said Georgina, encouragingly, as she tapped the dashboard of her old brown van which was coughing as it tackled a hill en route back to the airport. The road levelled, we turned a bend and an expanse of mountain ranges opened up before us.

“I love this place, it is home,” said Georgina admiring the view, and it felt like it came from her heart.

We had journeyed to the ‘heart’ of Basque culture, both geographically and personally, through meetings with Maika and her family, Jexux, the miller and Delfina, Dambolin – all of whom had welcomed us with open arms, a kiss for each cheek, and a warm heart. It was their knowledge, wisdom and willingness to be friends, that ‘backdoor’ contact, which made the journey unique and memorable.

As we neared the airport I took in a last view of the Pyrenees, and blinked to halt a happy tear welling in my eye, and remembered the day in Ameztia, when the Joaldunak appeared over the mountain and the flurry of excitement among friends. This had been an unforgettable week: not only had I journeyed to the heart of this land and its people, they had also found a lasting place in mine.

Festival Joaldunak Basque

Trance like the Joaldunak (bell ringers), appeared over the brow of the mountain, like a fancy-dress clad military unit. As they neared, the dirge-like rumble of copper bells, strapped to their backs, grew louder, sending a wave of excitement down the lane to where the villagers were huddled against the rain to watch them pass their homes.

People gobbled down last mouthfuls of pinxos (snacks), grabbed their glasses of tinto (red wine) and hurriedly headed for the best vantage points.

Suddenly the Joaldunak were beside us, close enough to touch. The ringing of their bells was almost deafening; the bright colours and sheep-like shapes of their identical outfits offering a stark contrast to a grey sky.

I stood in awe to witness an annual festival recognised by UNESCO as an event of ‘intangible cultural heritage’.

This private Basque ceremony takes place in and around the village of Ituren on the penultimate Saturday in every September.

In traditional costumes which represent fertility, the 36-strong Joaldunak unison of men, boys, and one woman, aged 15 to 62; pulsated past small crowds, shaking whips of black horse-tail hair in their right hands.

They were led by one of their elders, Dambolin Nagusi, with a cow horn draped around his neck, ready to sound his troop in to line: “We march for our ancestors, as they did,” said Dambolin. “This festival is something very old, which was suppressed during Franco’s regime when they tried to get rid of Basque traditions,” he said, fervently, before grabbing his conical hat and sounding his deafening horn.

He had led the Joaldunak to Sumbillanea, the home of Sagrario and Ignacio in Ameztia, to bless their home and pay homage to Ignacio’s father, a late, great Joaldunak.

The poignant parade serves as an intimate warm-up to the spectacular three-day January carnivals in Ituren and neighbouring Zubieta where the Zanpantzar (a group of Joaldunak) reignite an ancient ritualistic din by marching through the towns, ringing bells to awaken the Earth, frightening away evil spirits and wild animals, and blessing the fields for a good harvest.

Few tourists have witnessed the event – I was among a handful of the first. I often found myself swallowing a gratitude induced lump in my throat, along with local sheep’s cheese washed down with the popular sloe-flavoured liqueur, Patxarran, which were frequently doing the rounds.