Far from the Madding Crowd

travel stories  by Laura Onea

The Cotswolds

What do you want to do when you grow up? Well, older, in this case. Though, I wonder if growing up is a matter of aging or a cumulative effect of how you respond to experiences in your life. Probably both. To answer the question: I would move to rural England and own a tea shop. A small and homey tea shop luring passersby with an enchanted scent of roses and steamed milk, in the same way Jean-Baptiste Grenouille explores the emotional meaning of essences in a perfume, in Suskind’s mesmerising book “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”. (If you haven’t read it, or watched the movie, I urge you to do so. It will exalt your senses.) Don’t panic, I won’t turn into a cold blood criminal. :)) I am pretty sure I’ll be a cool but warm and friendly lady sharing stories with her guests all day long.

However, I think you need to be prepared to face the solitude and peacefulness. Yes, yes, you heard me well, to face it. Sometimes we also need to learn (or relearn) how to embrace things that theoretically should have a positive effect on ourselves. I am almost sure I am not the only one who needs to overcome that restlessness that makes us feel uncomfortable if we sit too long in either a quiet or a noisy place. But it’s ok. 🙂 So until I reach that deep feeling of comfort and peace with my own thoughts I will continue to treat myself, once in a while, with the charm and cosiness of the countryside.

What I like most about Cotswolds is that it gives you time and space to fantasize. And if you are not a big fan of the girly airy fairies, then you might as well imagine hobbits welcoming you into their tiny houses, some almost entirely covered in creeper plants. Rural England is a painting in itself.

For a diversity seeker like myself, the area is pure delight given the mixed feelings it arouses. Now I am wandering in a fairy tale, or playing hide and seek in Pan’s labyrinth, while the next moment I am an aristocrat drinking tea with the Queen during a golden age. Time travel at its best.

One of the most popular villages in Cotswolds, if the not the most popular, and if I remember well, the first one I set foot on, is Bibury. Love at first sight. The main and most visible attraction are the charming cottages always dressed in multicoloured flowers and plants. But this festive look on the outside stands in a subtle contrast with a feeling of peacefulness and warmth you could guess by peeking inside. I would feel like knocking on every door, but I master the impulse and end up taking a photo, or several. I recommend the Trout Farm in the village, by far the best cooked trout I have ever eaten.

Other two nice villages that fall in the same popularity category as Bibury are Bourton-on-the-Water and Chipping Campden, famous for the honey coloured stone architecture, romantic bridges that cross the river, local tea shops, antiques and picturesque scenes. They tend to become a bit crowded during high season but you won’t feel suffocated like when you are experiencing the crowd of a big city.

The places that have the most powerful effect of reverie on me are the smaller ones, idyllic villages like Stunton or Lower and Upper Slaughter. It’s unlikely you cross your path with more than 5 people, and it’s oh, so quiet. You wander along till you become incapable of distinguishing magic from reality and wish you could linger there for some time. Forget the diet and treat yourself in one of the local tea shops with their favourite scone and cream tea. Choose the smallest tea shops as they will give that cosy feeling that you have entered someone’s home.

We have recently bought bikes (well, actually, I have recently learnt to cycle, but don’t tell anyone!) and the Cotswolds is our favourite area to practice, enjoying beautiful views and peacefulness. And less traffic if any at all! There are plenty of routes between villages but you can also choose one of the off-road trails. Broadway Tower Country Park, for example, is home to a herd of Red Deer and includes several peaceful woodland trails. There are nice views from the top, where the tower is. Another good option is to cycle along the Kennet and Avon canal from Seend to Devizes.

If you like autumn, just head to south Cotswolds and prepare for a delightful fashion show performed by the Autumn Fairy herself. She dresses all her children, the trees, in a haute-couture richness of colourful clothes. Westonbirt Arboretum hosts a beautiful collection of rare and exotic plants and trees over an area of 2.4 km². Most of them were planted in the mid-19th century. Never in my life have I seen so many reddish trees in one place, it’s like entering a vibrant painting which stays in your mind for a long time.

Another special and enriching thing to experience in the area is to look for an accommodation through Airbnb. And if you haven’t yet, this is the perfect place to start doing it especially because people living here often resemble the characters in the stories I was telling you about. Like place, like people, so to say. Most of their homes are converted barns or very old houses, and people like collecting vintage pieces of furniture or even building furniture themselves, which lends character to the house and recreates a historical atmosphere. In case you haven’t noticed yet, we are very fond of dogs, so each time we have the occasion we choose an accommodation with dog/s included, which makes the experience even better. 🙂

I have been to the area several times so far but I never seem to get enough. There are many hidden corners and secret passages that await your imagination to make up a story about them and then picture yourself in it. See you soon!

Donna Nook

Since I have moved to London 8 months ago, I have fortunately realised that UK is not only about… London. Or about Oxford, or Cambridge, for the prestige and Harry Potter lovers. Or Manchester, for the football fans. Or about any other city or place that one, my old self included, would easily picture, mostly because these are the most promoted ones.

My boyfriend is very keen on photographing birds and animals in their natural habitat so he implicitly researches the subject and follows any opportunity. Thus his sudden proposal to make the most of one weekend and go see the grey seals and their newborn pups didn’t come as a surprise. And as birds of a feather flock together, it didn’t take me much to get enthusiastic about the idea.

Donna Nook Nature Reserve is a strip of land along the east coast, approximately 250 km north from London. The area is very rich in wildlife, especially when it comes to species of birds and grey seals. Part of the land is also used for bombing and firing testing by the Ministry of Defense. Wildlife seems to have become accustomed to regular aircraft bombing. November and December are famous for the seals’ birth and mating season, which gets the attention of many, especially photographers and families with children.

After seeing some pictures with the fluffy (I must admit that for me, ‘fluffy’ is a strong word in itself, I cannot stay aside from anything that bears this characteristic :- ) ) newborn seals, I got very excited by the trip. It was a new thing for me to see, live, animals engaged in such a intimate and heartwarming experience. Few days before we got there, more than 700 had already been born, so you can imagine the thrill.

Being there was far more beautiful than I actually expected. The temperatures dropped so considerably on that weekend, you could intensely feel the slap of the sharp winter wind. I remember that no matter how many layers of thermal clothes I would put on me I could still feel the daunting cold. The perk of it was that not too many dared to go out on that weather, not to mention do something that didn’t involve too much movement, like seal watching. Which of course meant less crowded.

I didn’t expect to see sooo many seals in one place. I actually don’t remember seeing any that close, in their natural environment. You start hearing them before you reach the spot and the sound may seem a bit creepy at first but this feeling soon diminishes as you enter their world in more depth. The strip of land where the seals can be seen covers about 2 km and there is a fence between them and the visitors, as trespassing can harm both animals and people.

The spectacle was absolutely fascinating, and quite diverse. There were, of course, the intimate and emotional moments with mothers caring for their babies, kissing them, breast feeding and guiding the clumsy pups to their breasts. But there were also the funny moments when you could spot seals rolling from one side to another or the fattest ones sleeping with a smile on their faces. Then the also intimate but a bit uncomfortable moments when the females and the males made love on a bed of… no, not roses, but mud, or the intense ones when mothers were defending their babies from other intruding seals.

But on top of all, there were the adorable and fluffy baby seals. I don’t remember seeing anything fluffier than this. It was hard not to pet them but I knew this was not possible due to the fact that mothers would have abandoned them if they sensed any human smell on their fur, so I enjoyed watching.

We arrived at Donna Nook 1 hour before sunset which didn’t leave us too much time to linger on singular experiences and take closer photos. Plus, we were shivering, being very cold. I actually felt a bit sad to leave the seals there on that weather but I was reassured that they have enough fat to keep them warm. :)) Our accommodation was at 15 min drive from the Reservation and one of the many wonderful and authentic experiences we had since we’ve started booking through Airbnb. Our guests’ home was an oasis of warmth and cosiness, the perfect antidote for frozen hands and feet. We slept well and woke up quite early (though not as early as we have initially planned) to go catch another glimpse of the seals. Early in the morning and before sunset are the best options to go see them, especially if you arrive there during the weekend, because there are considerably less people and you don’t have to squeeze to catch a nice moment and linger on it. As the day moves on, more and more people reach the spot and the moment loses its charm.

The seals seemed more engaged during the morning. You could still spot the fatty ones whose only activity was to roll from one side to another or to sleepily enjoy the mud. Once in a while you could see their head rising and scanning the surroundings, but other than that, they couldn’t care less. :)) But there was an overall feeling of dynamics. As dynamic as a seal can be, given the fact that they are limited to crawling. You would be surprised, though, how quick and powerful they are, despite being so fat and having no legs, especially when it comes to defending their pup or fighting for a female.

Witnessing the first minutes of a newborn baby seal was one of the most emotional moments we experienced at Donna Nook. We reached the spot right after the mother gave life to a small and confused pup. She was now washing him, and probably teaching him how to experience the surroundings. Mothers stay with them until they learn how to survive. More than 1000 baby seals had been born by then and you could see them curiously sniffing the world, with their big round eyes and playful paws. Most of them came very close to the separating fence as if they knew they are going to melt humans’ hearts with their cute little faces.

As more people arrived and blocked most of the views, we decided that was the end of the journey. We didn’t leave without buying some local treats like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other goodies of the kind.

Norway, a different kind of ‘exotic’

I had been dreaming of the fjords in Norway for quite a while, thus I put a lot of enthusiasm, time and effort into searching for the wildest things and planning a way to make the most of our stay. No exaggeration when I say that planning and researching for the trip proved to be almost as exciting and fulfilling as the trip itself. Norway exceeded any expectations. You will see rainbows, in a literal way I mean, so many that you can take some to go and share them with someone in need when the case may be. At first I thought this might be nature’s way of making up for too much rain. However, this assumption seemed to be wrong when facing with the fact that we had many rainbows and 2 weeks of sunny days altogether. We must have been lucky…

Many things to say about this country, about this trip, most of them can’t be described in words, are to be felt. I’ll leave you with a mini journal encompassing daily notes on our main endeavours.

Day 1: Bergen

We chose to land on Bergen airport because it was the best option considering the main areas we wanted to cover during our two weeks in Norway. Following the same principle, you can chose any other airport (and Norway has plenty) depending on the places you want to explore, in order to save costs and time.

Day 2: Hike to Lake Bondhus and Bondhusbreen glacier, and accommodation in Hardangerfjord

The hike to Lake Bondhus and Bondhusbreen glacier takes approx. 4-5 hours (round trip) and it is relatively easy to follow. To be on the safe side, it’s better that your hiking boots have good grip and are waterproof, as if it rains (which is very likely in Norway) the stones can become quite slippery. It was, without doubt, one of my favourite hikes in Norway. The scenery is beautiful, quite diverse in nature and rich in colours. The forest undergoes several changes in terms of vegetation as you go along, and on more than half of the hike you will have the magical Lake Bondhus on your side. The lake, too, changes in colour, depending on light or weather.

*I highly recommend Oddland camping, in Hardangerfjord. Yes, the cabins are cosy and well equipped, and yes, the prices are very reasonable, but what makes it so unique is the location, right on the shore of the fjord. And of course this comes along with a room with a view.

Day 3: Sognefjord area (Sognefjord is the largest fjord in Norway and the third longest fjord in the world) – hike along Aurlandsdalen (Aurlandsfjord is a branch of the main Sognefjord)

Our initial plan was to hike along Aurlandsdalen (Aurland valley), in order to have top views over the fjord, starting from Østerbø and ending at Vassbygdi. However, we got lost at some point on the route and given the late hour we decided to do another shorter hike to one of the peaks. The routes are not very well marked so it is recommended to have a good map, if not a GPS, for hikes.

Day 4: Sognefjord area – drive on the Old Road (Aurlandsfjellet National Tourist Route) and Borgund Stave Church

The Old Road is a 47-kilometre-long stretch of road, a scenic route between Aurland and Lærdal that offers wonderful views over the Aurlandsfjord. Basically, you drive with the fjord on one side and the mountains/the rocks on the other side. The road between Aurland and Lærdal has its highest point at 1306 metres above sea level and the mountains are covered in snow during most of the summer. We then went to the Borgund village to see the Stave Church, which I wouldn’t miss if I were you. It’s different from all of the churches I had seen thus far, resembling an upside down ship from the inside, and its location is very peaceful.

Day 5: Sognefjord area – hike along the Nærøyfjord

The hike along the Nærøyfjord (that is literally a narrow fjord) is another favourite on my list, due to its wild and fairy-like nature. The hike is an easy 12 km round trip, mainly through the forest, with lovely views over the emerald-like fjord. You will also pass by old farms and cultural remains. The path is part of The Royal Postal Route, which was established in 1600 between Bergen and Oslo. To reach the start of the hike we took the boat from Gudvangen to Flåm. We requested a special stop at Styvi where we began the walk. The funny and exciting part was that we were the only ones getting down at this ‘station’ and people from the boat waved their hands in both surprise and admiration. It gave us a Robinson Crusoe feeling and this feeling was kept all along the hike. After you finish the hike and return to Styvi, you need to push a signal button so that the boat will stop and pick you up back to Gudvangen.

Following the hike, on our way to Jotunheimen National Park, we took Route 55, also known as Sognefjellet National Tourist Route, which was another big surprise. The route reaches the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe (1434 metres above sea level), being awarded the status of national tourist route because of the spectacular and wild mountain scenery it passes through. I was in constant awe on the road and I promised to myself I will come back on that spot and camp, surrounded by the mountains covered in snow.

* I highly recommend the accommodation at Brimi Sæter, not to mention their breakfast. It’s in top 10 places where I spent the night. A combination of rural with exotic, without being kitschy at all, and the food is outrageously delicious, homemade and organic. It was pricier than the rest of the cabins but it was worth every NOK.

Day 6: Jotunheimen National Park – hike on Besseggen ridge

A classical route for the Besseggen ridge, a popular mountain hike in Norway, is the one starting from Gjendesheim, where you take the boat to Memurubu. Here is where the hike begins. It is a 6-7 hours long trip, relatively easy for experienced hikers, with one exposed and steep section in the first part of the hike. The trail’s highest point is Veslfjellet at 1743 m. Midway along the hike, you will have a great view over the lakes Gjende and Bessvatnet. What makes them special is them being so close to one another (separated by the ridge) and yet having 2 different colours. Bessvatnet has a blue colour typical of other lakes, while Gjende has a distinct green colour, which is the result from glacier runoff containing clay. During the summer months, the trail can be quite crowded, so it’s best to start the hike later in the day (the last boat from Gjendesheim to Memurubu was at 14:30) having in mind that it will get dark around 11 PM. Some prefer to do the hike backwards, the only thing you need to take into account is that the last pick up boat from Memurubu to Gjendesheim is at 16:30, or around this time, depending on the time of the year.

Day 7: Romsdal area – Troll Wall (Trollveggen) and Trollstigen

Romsdal area, with its beautiful valley and rocky mountains, was, in my opinion, the nicest and most diverse in natural landscape, of all the areas we explored during our trip in Norway. We had had a good intuition and we had planned 3 nights in this particular spot, which gave us some time to explore it in more depth. In the end, though, even this allocated time proved to be insufficient. A good reason to come back!

The mountains do change in shape in this area, as compared to the flatter-looking previous ones. They reminded me of the breathtaking rocky views in Făgăraș Mountains and of the jagged ridges in the Dolomites. We did see the famous Trollveggen on our first day in the area, but only from the bottom, which made us even more excited to experience its majesty from the Romsdalseggen ridge. Trollveggen, also known as Troll Wall, is the highest vertical rock wall in Europe and a desirable challenge for the climbers and base jumpers.

We also drove along the Trollstigen National Tourist Route, a serpentine mountain road that offers dizzying views of valleys, waterfalls, sheer mountainsides and deep fjords. It resembles, in many ways, the Transfăgărășan Road.

Day 8: Romsdal area – hike towards Innerdalen valley

Another one on my top list, the walk to Innerdalen valley is a very easy short hike (approx. 1 hour, one way) but hugely rewarding in terms of landscape. You stroll along a woodland path until you reach the valley that welcomes you with a crystal clear lake surrounded by forests and mountains. Standing tall amidst all, impossible not to notice it, is the Innerdalstårnet, a 1452-metre tall mountain, also known as the Matterhorn of the North, due to its pyramidal shape. If available, borrow some lifejackets from the cabin in the valley, take the small boats and row on the lake as much as you’d like. It’s free of charge. And don’t forget to treat yourself with some homemade waffles inside the same cabin, the best I’ve tasted so far. It’s impossible to miss them, you can feel the luring smell from the outside. This is another place where we would definitely come back, as there are plenty of hikes starting from the valley that we haven’t had time to explore.

Day 9: Romsdal area – hike on the Romsdalseggen ridge

Still shivering with enthusiasm when remembering the day, I must admit this was the day I enjoyed most while in Norway, and it probably was the most beautiful hiking trip I have done thus far. The hike on the ridge can take between 6-9 hours, depending on how experienced you are or on how much time you want to spend enjoying the 360 degrees view. We took Vengedalen as a starting point, ending the hike in Åndalsnes. In terms of the level of difficulty, I would say ‘medium’, due to its several exposed and steep sections. However, if you do not suffer from altitude sickness, these particular sections can offer spectacular views over the rocky mountains, deep blue lakes and the Romsdalsfjord. The Troll Wall can be seen at its best from the ridge. And if you are lucky enough, a playful sunset light can stand as icing on the cake.

Day 10: Short visit to Ålesund and in search of puffins in Runde

On our way to Runde, the birds’ island, we took advantage of the warm and shiny day and stopped for a couple of hours in Ålesund, the nicest town we came across in Norway, with its art nouveau architecture and beautiful port. Runde made a very good first impression, despite the fact that we didn’t see any colourful adorable little clowns, as it was the end of birds season and probably too windy for them to fly so high over the rocks. One of the quieter, if not the quietest, and wilder places we experienced, the island gives you that feeling of profoundness and infiniteness, with its vast ocean and thousands of birds hovering over the rocks.

Day 11: Geirangerfjord – Dalsnibba viewpoint

On our way from Runde to Geiranger we stopped at Dalsnibba viewpoint. Dalsnibba is a mountain plateau at the end of Geiranger valley, with an elevation of 1476 m, offering panoramic views of the mountains covered in snow.

Day 12: Geirangerfjord – hike along the fjord and the Seven Sisters Waterfall

We took the boat from Geiranger village and requested a stop at Skageflå where we began our trip along the fjord. After about 45 min of steep ascent you reach the Skageflå historic mountain farm and you can continue your walk back to Geiranger village for approximately 3 hours. Count 4 if you want to taste from the local berries, wild strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and even redcurrants. Actually, ours couldn’t be called ‘tasting’. It rather replaced a full dinner, as we couldn’t stop eating, so rich was the harvest. The hike also offers the best view over the Seven Sisters Waterfall.

* Don’t miss eating at Olebuda restaurant in Geiranger village, it was probably the best cooked food we tried in Norway. Not too many international options by the way.

Day 13: Jostedalsbreen (Jostedal Glacier is the largest glacier in continental Europe) – hike to Briksdalsbreen glacier

Because of the many hours we needed for driving back to Bergen, there was not much time left to explore the Jostedalsbreen area in depth, thus we decided to do just a short hike to Briksdalsbreen, one of the most accessible and best known arms of the Jostedalsbreen glacier. The walk is very easy (2 hours round trip) and the place, though maybe the most touristic of them all, is very beautiful. Small chances to resist the temptation to step your bare feet into the white-blue water. It is freezing cold but it’s only in this way that you can fully feel the glacier’s vibes.

Day 14: Bergen

Bergen is a nice town so if you have some time left after being in nature, do take a stroll by the port and the wooden houses. The open air market near the port is not to be missed either. It has fresh fish, fruits and other local specialties.