Italy: The Way of St Francis

Fields on the Way of St Francis

I know a lot of people who have walked on the Camino di Compostela di Santiago, which is the most famous pilgrimage route in Europe but it has never really appealed to me. The scenery doesn’t seem very inspiring and the fact that 237,000 people did this camino in 2014 puts me off as well.

But the idea of a pilgrimage – following an ancient spiritual path is something I would like to do at least once in my life. Perhaps the mystery of following the footprints of ancient pilgrims offers something intangible, alongside the physical achievement of hiking.

So listening to Sandy Brown talking about his experience hiking the Way of St Francis (Via di Francesco) caught my attention immediately. In fact Europe has a whole network of major pilgrimage itineraries, and the gentle monk was a traveller on many of these.

The idea trek from Florence to Rome via Assisi covers many of the locations significant in the life of St Francis, as well as some of Italy’s most gorgeous landscapes and gastronomical delights.  The man was, and is, one of the most important Christian figures, whose humility and compassion set him apart and whose call to “preach to all creatures” made Christianity for everybody.

A dove in Assisi, Italy

Sandy Brown is quite honest in explaining that there have been many variations on this theme over the years but his goal over the past few years has been to prepare a Cicerone guidebook that attempts to offer the most walkable and interesting route from Florence to Rome.

This is not a true historical route but rather a new route linking the Franciscan sites, and with an aim of reintroducing the Franciscan experience.

It starts from Santa Croce in Florence, a Franciscan basilica that has some hold relics (as well as being the mausoleum of famous Italians), and carries on through the forests and fields of Chianti and on into Umbria.

Umbria is where I got married and I have returned several times to enjoy this rich landscape with its many small, ancient towns.

Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

The climax is a visit to Assisi itself, that heavenly cream-coloured town on the hillside where St Francis was buried surrounded by his friends. I went to Assisi on my honeymoon and would love to approach it on foot rather than in a car!

There are many other highlights over the 550-kilometre Via di Francesca, including lakes, mountains and unspoilt villages. Don’t worry you can hike the Way of St Francis in stages (28 of them), starting from many different places along the route.

The basilica of St Francis in Assisi, Italy

Of course the guidebook has the usual excellent Cicerone features such as elevation diagrams and maps. I have used Cicerone guides many times, most recently for my Tour du Mt Blanc hike.

You can get your Way of St Francis passport stamped along the way and then you get to enter a not-for-the-public area of St Peters in Rome to collect your certificate of completion!

As Sandy Brown said, there is something about hiking that allows you to focus on yourself, your spirit, on just walking, with every day filled with great joy. I think I have found my next hiking goal!

By Natasha von Geldern

Have you hiked a pilgrimage trail?

England: Wandering Hadrian’s Wall

Housesteads Roman Fort Hadrians Wall England
I have always wanted to see Hadrian’s Wall, in fact I harbour an ambition of walking the entire length of it one day. I loved reading Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels when I was a child – especially Eagle of the Ninth – and the thought of those Roman legions stationed at the edge of the empire has always been fascinating to me.

So when we were on a road trip from Scotland down to England after exploring Islay it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a look at this Unesco World Heritage Site.

A bit of research quickly revealed that Housesteads Roman Fort is a short detour from the M1. Hadrian’s Wall runs from the River Tyne near the North Sea all the way to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea but in many places not much remains. Housesteads is one of the best places to see Hadrian’s Wall intact.

Thanks to Ms Sutcliffe I have often imagined legionaries used to the Italian climate battling not only the Celtic tribes but the grim weather of the Scottish borderlands.

Housesteads Roman Fort Hadrians Wall

However, on this morning in November the weather could not have been more glorious. You could see for miles across the beautiful Northumberland landscape from this dramatic hilltop location. And in fact I found out that the troops stationed here were from Belgium. So the weather may not have been as much of a shock as I had imagined.

This incredible ruined fort is jointly looked after by the National Trust and English Heritage. They do a fantastic job, unsurprisingly. There is a welcoming gift shop with refreshments and an excellent visitor centre displaying information and artefacts from the site, as well as a film giving a strong impression of the building and manning of what the Romans knew as Vercovicium.

The granary at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrians Wall

It was only an auxiliary fort but it is one of the best preserved remaining structures, with the foundations and walls of extensive buildings laid out for visitors to see. There are the barracks and granaries, kitchens and officer’s quarters – so much more than I was expecting.

Hadrians Wall Northumberland England

And at the edge of it all lies the wall, dropping steeply away and then curving off across the hills as far as the eye can see. What an achievement. There would have been a fort about every five Roman miles (an imperial Roman mile was 1,000 paces or nearly 5,000 feet) and this is the best preserved of the 16 still in existence.

The Romans started building Vercovicium around AD124 and it was garrisoned for around 280 years. At times there were up to 800 soldiers here and a civilian settlement grew up in the shadow of its walls, with shops, inns and temples, as well as crops growing and livestock grazing within field boundaries that can still be faintly made out.

Information boards around the site make it easy to imagine how it would have all been laid out and how life would have been carried on here at the edge of Roman Britannia.

By Natasha von Geldern

Have you visited Hadrian’s Wall? Where do you recommend as the best place to see it?

Sponsored Video: Wandering in Dublin

Banks of the Liffey in Dublin
Dublin was for a long time a dream travel destination for me, high on my list for when I came to Europe, but in the end when I finally got there I only had one day to make the most of this city!

Don’t feel too sorry for me. The reason my Dublin time was limited is because I went to a U2 concert at Slane Castle and that took up a lot of the long weekend. U2 backed up by the Chilli Peppers and Coldplay. So yeah, no need to cry for me.

But how to make the most of my day in Dublin? How to pack in my obsession with the poetry of WB Yeats and other Irish literary giants, my fascination with Irish history, and of course a desire to experience the famous Irish craic.

The answer was a city walking tour with a difference. A literary pub crawl. It had singing, poetry, and a warm enthusiasm that made me fall in love with Dublin at first sight. And it had pubs, lovely brown cosy Irish pubs.

The Duke pub Dublin

The starting point is The Duke pub and starting with a pint of Guinness seemed entirely appropriate at 10.30 in the morning. An extract from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ was the launching point of the tour in a pub that was frequented byBrendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh.

A professional actor leads each tour and bringing famous literary works to life was the order of the day as we wound our way through Dublin’s historic streets, including Trinity College and St Andrew’s church.

I was excited to stop by the statue of Oliver Goldsmith in the grounds of Trinity College writer. Nobody else in the tour seemed to have heard of this 18th century writer but I was happily reminded of reading the Vicar of Wakefield as a teenager.

Oliver Goldsmith Trinity College Dublin

We stopped at four different pubs, which were once frequented by writers such as Joyce and the Davy Byrnes pub is actually mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses. However, the main purpose of the pub stops after The Duke were more about taking a break to absorb what we had just seen and heard.

I never felt overwhelmed by the amount of information imparted as there was a good balance of walking, lecturing, laughing and watching what was essentially snippets of live street performance.

And live street performance in the very places where the writers would have lived and heard all the language and music of the streets of Dublin.

The Literary Pub crawl is laughter and poetry washed down with a few pints – what more could you want from a day in Dublin? As WB Yeats wrote in his ‘A Drinking Song’:

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh.

Apparently Dublin has been named runner up for Europe’s Leading City Break Award in 2015. I would definitely recommend spending at least some of your time in one of the world’s friendliest cities on a literary pub crawl and you can see some other great reasons to visit Dublin on this video:

By Natasha von Geldern

If you want to read more about my travels in Ireland, check out my post about beautiful Donegal!

This post is sponsored by Tourism Ireland, but all opinions remain my own.

d, but all opinions remain my own.

The top 6 attractions of Yerevan and Tbilisi

Narikala fortress, Tbilisi
Armenia and Georgia are two amazing neighboring countries located in Transcaucasia. They have so many similarities in their traditions and genuine hospitality. Tourists who choose Armenia & Georgia Tours are very impressed with the excellent cuisine, stunning mountain landscapes, exotic traditions and customs, and the kindness and hospitality of the locals. In this article, you can get acquainted with the most popular “must-visit” attractions of the capitals of these countries – Yerevan and Tbilisi.

Republic Square

Republic Square, also called “the heart of Yerevan”, is considered one of the most popular and favorite parts of the capital. It amazes with its elaborate design, which was conceived by prominent Armenian architect A. Tamanyan in 1926. He developed a complex, but at the same time brilliant plan under which all the old buildings of this territory were destroyed and replaced with new ones. Each of these buildings has a unique architecture that combines elements of traditional style and the best of world architecture.

The famous buildings that frame the square are: the History Museum, the Government House, the Central post-office, the Hotel “Mariott Armenia”. The highlight of the square that captures the most attention is the large clock on the Government House that has the diameter of 4 metres. Republic Square is also famous for its amazing singing fountains that operate each day from May to October. They delight all visitors with a colourful and unforgettable show that is so inspiring and romantic you will never get tired of watching it! So, while in Yerevan try not miss the opportunity to visit this old, and at the same time modern and popular place. It is a “must-visit” for all tourists.

Republique square, Yerevan

Northern Avenue

The Northern Avenue of Yerevan is located just near the Republic Square and is considered one of the most modern parts of the capital. Luxurious buildings with unique architectural designs, brand shops, souvenir boutiques, coffee houses and restaurants, elite commercial offices – all this can be found on the avenue. By the way, it is home to such world famous brands as Armani, Burberry, New Yorker, Ermenegildo Zegna, GANT and many others. Each evening lots of locals and tourists come here to take a stroll, visit the fashionable boutiques and just have a good time. The avenue is always filled with bright and lively atmosphere and the sound of music.

Matenadaran Museum

If you prefer educational museums be sure to visit Matenadaran – the number one museum of Yerevan. It is a world-famous repository of ancient manuscripts. Its collection is just amazing: about 23,000 exhibits that include old Armenian and world manuscripts, documents, old printed books, and miniature paintings. Тhe highlight of the collection is both the largest and the smallest books in the world.

Narikala Fortress

Incredible Narikala Fortress, the “heart and the soul” of Tbilisi, is the most famous and ancient monument of the city. It stands on the peak of the Mount Mtatsminda, which offers a magnificent view to the old part of the city and surrounding mountains. The construction of the fortress dates back to the 4th century, when it had a purely defensive function. In the grounds of the fortress, you can also visit the Church of St. Nikolay of the 12th century which was reconstructed in 1990.

Rustaveli Avenue

The central avenue of Tbilisi, stretching over 1.5 km from Freedom Square, is a real “must-visit” for all guests of the city. The avenue is named after the famous medieval Georgian poet – Shota Rustaveli. The significance of this famous street can be compared with the Champs Elysees in Paris or the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. Rustaveli Avenue has its own unique atmosphere and offers lots of famous attractions: monuments, busts, statues, fountains, museums, theatres, churches, shops, art salons and the main cinema.

The opposite side of the avenue can be called “commercial” as it hosts various shops, souvenir boutiques, cafes and restaurants. That is why it is rather crowded. However, here you will also find some interesting and attractive buildings, such as the Presidium of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, the Union of Cinematographers located in a building with a colonnade in the Italian style, and the Ministry of Justice. The other special attraction in this area is an incredibly popular water store “Lagidze”, which offers mineral water with a variety of syrups prepared from fruits and herbs.

Rustaveli_Avenue, Tbilisi

Tbilisi Sulfur Baths

According to some travel sites, Tbilisi Sulphuric Baths are considered the number one attraction of the city. They are situated in the old part of Tbilisi on Grishashvili Street. The baths are very old; they were built in the 17th-19th centuries and once belonged to royal families. Their unique feature is that the water is supplied from the ground; it is hot (37 degrees C) and contains a lot of sulphur.

The most beautiful among them is Orbeliani or Blue one, which is amazingly decorated with minarets and blue tiles. Even such famous writers as Alexander Dumas and Alexander Pushkin expressed excited words after visiting the baths. The former even said that “never before had he seen anything that can surpass the magnificent Tiflis baths”. So, the baths are really worth visiting! You can even rent a special room with a massage table. With just a few hours spent in these waters with a smell of hydrogen sulphide, you will improve your health and get a lot of pleasure.

Wandering on Iceland’s south coast

Iceland - kirkjufellsfoss-sumarid

Photo: Iceland Tourism

A lot of visitors to Iceland go on a day tour of the south coast; Iceland tours that take you from Reykjavik and stop at the Vik Village, the two big waterfalls, perhaps the Skogar folk museum and the tongue of the Solheimajokull glacier.

It’s a long day and a whistle stop rush around some of Iceland’s most famous landscapes. Instead, I recommend staying a few days to absorb something of the remote wildness of this beautiful land.

As I have written before, my first impressions of Iceland were … limited. The weather was poor; as a New Zealander I failed to get excited about the geothermal activity; and by rushing about I didn’t have a chance to see anything but bleak emptiness.

This all changed when I got to a cluster of log cabins on a seemingly empty plain on the south coast. Staying at Hotel Ranga ended up being my favourite experience on my Iceland road trip.

Iceland - thingvellir-haustlitir

Photo: Iceland Tourism

It was here that I started to understand how Iceland is a country ruled by the forces of nature. How it looks bleak at first glance but reveals surprising colours and textures. Where the landscape can be devastated by an eruption but be miraculously green again in just a few months.

I wandered in the summer meadows, rich with mosses and tiny flowers. I met some of the local Icelandic horses, with their long shaggy fringes, soft colours and eyes that make your heart melt. Introduced by the Viking settlers in the 9th century, they are hardy and sure-footed, and although small in stature they are sweet in nature.

Chatting to the host I gained an appreciation of the phlegmatic and humorous character of Icelandic people. They are far from dismayed by the latest earthquake or eruption but more likely to rush off to have a look.

Iceland - nordurljos-jokulsarloni-vetur-fon

Photo: Iceland Tourism

In winter time the northern lights often dance overhead. After a day out snow-mobiling you can sit in the outdoor hot tub with beer in hand, watching nature’s greatest show. Of course the hot tubs are great in summer too, with views out towards the mountains and over the meadows to the sea where seals frolic.  The sense of being one of only a few people on this isolated dot of lava in the Atlantic.

If, like me, you love beer you must try the local earthquake beer on tap here. Skjalfti is named ‘the trembling’ for the 2001 earthquake. It is created nearby at a small farm brewery called Olvisholt in the old fashioned Viking style and from the purest ingredients. It’s a strong-tasting lager with both citrus and caramel notes.

The food served at Hotel Ranga is similarly outstanding, although you might be a little surprised at some items on the menu. It was the strips of cured meat in an exquisite salad that first caught my taste buds and I was slightly horrified to find out it was puffin but this became an opportunity to understand more about the Icelandic way of life.

Fresh food available in Iceland hasn’t changed much since the Viking Age, revolving of course around bountiful seafood and land-based lamb, reindeer and horse (yes some Icelandic horses are bred for meat). Then there is Lundi – puffin – which has been a source of protein here for 1,000 years.


 Photo: Iceland Tourism

There is a strong culture of puffin hunting, although it has been cancelled in recent years due to warmer seas altering fish supplies and puffin numbers falling. I decided that as long as puffin hunting is sustainable I am ok to enjoy the results. Icelandic chefs are certainly more imaginative in how they prepare the natural bounty of Iceland than the Vikings were!

Staying here is a superb base for discovering Iceland’s south coast, and, more importantly for gaining an understanding of what makes this isolated country so special.

Before you leave don’t forget to pose for the iinevitablele selfie with Hrammur (the 10-foot tall stuffed polar bear in the lobby)!

By Natasha von Geldern