Category Archives: hill walking

Arctic tundras and canal shores of Venice. Going after unstructured experiences.

A hunt for unstructured experiences is the easiest way to summarise my year of 2016. Yes, I did doctoral research on the topic but the theme was definitely prominent also in other areas of my life (in art, mountaineering training, etc.).

For a while now, I shall probably be posting about different ways to go after that specific type of experience. I will give my best to try to approach it from all angles, large or small, crooked or right angled, and see what makes it longed for, for me and for a lot of people of my time.

This post will focus on two very straightforward ways of achieving a completely fresh spatial experience without throwing yourself off a train without a map. It will focus on ways for designing surprises that work, for yourself.

1. Give someone permission to take you on a trip without telling you the destination.

Lessons learned from the Arctic Norway and Finnish Lapland in September 2016.

Let another person pack your clothes, choose the date and not tell you where you will be going. Destination awareness can be left for the check-in desk, train station or the boat mooring spot.

In September, I had a fabulous chance to experience that type of once again. It is definitely one of my most favourite modes of travelling. Of course, it is romantic to the core, but it also frees you from the philosophical task number 1: to know where you’re going.

And this is where the surprise design kicks in. If all you know is the return date, every following detail starts acting as a structural element of your adventure:

– not knowing when you have to wake up;

– not knowing whether there are plans for the next day;

– not knowing what is in the neighbourhood, near or far;

– not knowing what to take with you;

– not knowing which means of transport to use;

– not having to worry about reaching a place at a certain time;

– not knowing when and where you’ll be eating;

– not knowing which direction you’re going;

– not knowing what to expect.

Unstructuralism achieved!

2. Change the time and scope of your wanderings

Lessons learned on Venice canal shores in November 2016.

It is worth it. If you suddenly find yourself attracted to a city that is an object of admiration to the entire world … don’t go exploring it at the heels of it.

I am talking about these destinations that do not even have an off season, to use holiday parlance.

So, how to find your city inside everyone else’s?

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Night in San Marco, Venice. November 2016.

If possible, arrive very early or very late. This makes your first impression more personal.

Then, schedule your first longer wander outside the tourist hours. Yes, you are on a holiday (I only use the word “holiday” for city trips; outside of it, the concept does not even work), so setting the alarm for 3.30 AM may feel like the first signs of madness, but the sleepiness will lift as soon as you enter the empty maze that every new city is.

Imagination works better when left alone in an empty space. It is also easier to get a feel for a place that is uniquely meaningful only for you.

What else helps? Making a game of spotting a certain elements (like a weathered pattern on a wall) in every new street or square. This way you will end up looking into little side streets and courtyards more often.

Visiting cemeteries always helps. When a city is crowded, her cemeteries are usually less packed (well, depending how you’re counting). Cemeteries let you in on the spirit of the place (no pun intended) without having to fight the crowds.

For extra ideas, it is worth reading Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys or taking a an official city guide book and reversing everything that can be reversed.

Also, on the topic: “The rational flâneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information, what Nero was trying to practice in his travels, often guided by his sense of smell. The flâneur is not a prisoner of a plan. Tourism, actual or figurative, is imbued with the teleological illusion; it assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard-to-revise program, while the flâneur continuously – and, what is crucial, rationally – modifies his targets as he acquires information.” (From Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleeb)

 

 

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Memories of Madeira: 13 reasons for a summer visit

It was June. I travelled to Madeira with KJ, another dramaturge from Estonia who has an eye and a tooth for faraway places.

I’ll be honest – I only spent a week in Madeira. I have not hiked all of her levada trails, climbed all of her highest peaks or swam in all of her waves. But I have done portions of all of that.

Madeira makes you feel welcome. The atmosphere in here is so relaxed that every thing that your brain decides to distinguish gets interpreted as a greeting just for you. Maybe it’s that cute mongrel that is wagging its tail? Or maybe it’s that passionfruit mousse that has your first and (secret) middle name whipped into its fluffiness?

So, what are the ways Madeira greets you with even when you just have a week to explore?

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1.The lounging rooftop dogs.

You know how cats usually rule lots of Mediterranean (or generally warm) towns? And how they can be seen curled up in flower pots and sunbathing on window sills? Madeira has dogs sleeping on shed and house roofs with their snouts hanging over the edge in the warm wind.

2. Never-silent lizard steps.

There’s an endemic lizard species on Madeira that can be seen everywhere. No, really, everywhere! Which means that the bushes and shrubberies are never silent. Whether walking in the interior of the island or passing flower beds in town parks, the constant littil rustling never stops.

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3. Peaceful-looking ocean waves that still throw you onto the smooth but painful rocks.

In here, is better to jump in from a deeper place than try to approach the ocean on foot as you’d do on the shores of the Baltic Sea, for example. (You can trust my words or trust my bruises.)

A positive side to this is the sound of the receding waves over large pebbles and rocks. They sound like a rave where DJs play sped-up ice cracking recordings.

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A spa built around a volcanic beach. The softest place to swim.

4. Blossoms. Everywhere.

Everything that can blossom, blossoms. The nickname ‘The Island of Eternal Spring’ really holds true. And if you haven’t breathed in the white Angel’s trumpets’ blossoms yet, you’re lacking a drug-like experience which will change your life forever. (Only a slight exaggeration.)

One man’s front yard really can be the other man’s botanical garden.

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5. The demon ducks (?).

I mean, there are birds in the wide levadas that reach the ocean in different towns across the island that sound like demonic dog toys.

You can’t see the birds for the lush vegetation, but the sounds bear a resemblance to the common duck. Just be warned.

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No demon duck pictured.

6. The post-rain eucalypt trees.

Yes, they smell nothing like pines. And they also look slightly magical. And being amongst those trees does feel like your lungs are getting clinically cleansed by a forest dentist.

7. Scarecrows of all sorts.

You will see the human lookalikes and the classic tin can men, but you’ll aslo see figures designed out of wood blocks shaped like bones. (Check point 5 again?)

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8. Views from higher than cloud nine.

The highest part of the island lies away from its shores. For a superb view of mountain tops covered in clouds, head to Achada fo Teixeira in Santana. Only this is enough to give your horizons a stretch, but from here you can go for a pleasant hike to the top of Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1862 m). (It’s the descent at the other end of the trail that takes a bit more time.)

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9. The rise of the vertical forest.

They say that Estonia is 50% covered in forest. The percentage must reach 85% in Madeira. (Actually, 85% of the island is a national park.) The shape of the landscape (let’s just say it: the mountains!) also offers you either Alpine or near-Hawaiian views. Many mountains in one, as they say.

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10. Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins!

It will not be a beer commercial or an overpaid nature cruise. You just take literally any of the boat trips from Funchal’s harbour area and spend the next hours floating away on the Atlantic ocean, jump in if you want to, and of course, – seeing those littil friends come and accompany your boat for awhile. The spotted kind followed us, but there are others. (Ok, I’ve never seen dolphins in an ocean before, I’m still so so happy about this!)

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11. Eye-catching sculptural works.

You know how in Europe you often come across the following sculptures: men on horses, a couple with one of the people lying in the other’s arms, little children wrestling fish and/or peeing, or men wearing funny hats while looking serious?

Not in Maderia. Here you see (a lot!) larger-than-life-size cogs and conveyor belt pieces, angels with fallen heads stranded in mid-air between apartment blocks or 2D farmers hugging 2D cows.

A very welcome addition to the first list, as I see it.

12. The Airport.

If you’re afraid of flying (I used to be), don’t look it up. Even if you already know that it has a motorway and a little boat harbour under its runway and that the latter * used * to be the shortest in Europe, just don’t look it up.

However, if you do like side-wind landings, this is your party time. (Only if you land on a blustery day, of course.)

13. Parasols made of palm tree branches on urban beaches.

Some of the parasols are older, so their branches are withered.(The branches are probably taken from the banana plantations, but I could be wrong.) And when the wind blows, they rustle in that classic tropical manner. And this is amazing, although it can probably feel like a catalogue-ordered amazement. I have never heard a withered palm tree branch rustling over me on a beach, though.

I’m from the north. All this is magic.

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West Highland Way: 1/4

There were times when the parents of my friends forbade them to play with me when I was five. The same happened when I turned seven. And when I was basking in my official teenage years. All these parents shared a common fear – the fear of me taking their children to the forest. That fear was not based on a random flight of imagination, however. I did take everyone to the forest with me. I made them spend nights there. And build houses and rafts with me. Sometimes, we all fell into the bog water together or forgot which bridges were fake and slipped into the peaty rivers. There was no reason for those mothers to be worried. We were always having fun.

So, I was very glad when one of my best friends, K., nodded along to my plan to walk the 96-mile long West Highland Way early this October. (Even when her parents had known me for a long time already.)

We decided not to carry a tent (I don’t own a lightweight one, yet) and to sleep in hostels, hotels, bunk houses and camping pods. My 35L backpack got a tear next to one of its zippers already on a train to Glasgow. Otherwise, nothing else broke or needed mending during our journey. Except for K’s toe. It also did not break but did cause noticeable foot-related harm after having been introduced to a rock through an intense encounter.

My backpack held the following:

– a sleeping bag

– 3 pairs of socks + underwear

– 3 tops

– light trousers for sleeping

– an extra fleece

– blister plasters + a tiny first aid kit + a tiny personal hygiene kit

– a travel towel

– a thermos and a bit of instant coffee

– a map, a compass

– a walking diary, a pen and a mascara (yes)

Loch Lomond in sunshine.
Loch Lomond in sunshine.

DAY 1, Milngavie to Drymen: 22.5 km

Day 1 started brilliantly: in the foggy Glasgow where we missed our planned train to Milngavie. All good, though, since those trains are very regular. Milngavie also welcomed us shrouded in the fog and gave me enough time to go and buy some gaffer tape from Poundstrecher. We were ready to get going.

Most of the day took us on a very straightforward course. Both emotionally and path-wise. This was a cute part of the way that has also been the quickest to slip from my memory. (No disrespect to the road.) We walked on wide paths with houses or bigger roads nearly always in sight. However, this did turn out to be the only day when we actually deviated from our path. For a little while, we trotted along the John Muir way instead and ended up walking on a high and narrow bridge across a wide river as an award. One should never underestimate the Way of the Civilized. The Way of the Civilized can make you lose focus.

The bridge through air.
The bridge through air.

Searching for the hotel in the falling daylight without an access to the map – not exactly knowing where you sleep for the night – is the feeling I can’t get enough of. This is how I remember Drymen – a place with all the options open. (The sign of true freedom, ha-ha!) We had been promised a bed in a hotel lobby, that was all we knew. Yet, at the end of the evening, the lovely Frances from the Kip in the Kirk actually put us in a real room. What more could one ask for?! Well, home-made scones, perhaps. But she had those covered as well. All we had to do then, was to enjoy our warm showers and admire our sun-burnt shoulders from the day. (Yes.)

Day 1 of the way was a sweet day. It also came with a honesty box for ice cream on the road, an edible metaphor for the hungry.

The way of the day one.
The way of day one.

DAY 2, Drymen to Rowardennan: 22.5 km

One of my favourite things about travelling is starting walking in the morning when having received directions from someone else. This is how our morning started, and as a firm believer in travelling omens, I took it to be a good day at that very second. I also know that I wouldn’t actually mind just walking, walking, walking towards the hedge at the end of the world (I mean, the road), only to figure out whether that direction had been correct a little later. The freedom to step into the morning fog is indeed even sweeter than the fudge bars left for the sugar-deprived travellers.

Day 2 turned into another day of scorching sun. (I guess no one would believe that we had travelled to Scotland if there weren’t for the pictures.) After having walked through all our morning mists we set our course towards Conic Hill, under which we met an English French horn player now working in Germany. He was the first official walker we met on the road. We never learnt his name, as was the case with literally all the people we met and talked to. We only learnt where they had walked from and what were their plans for the coming day. (Sometimes, life is just poetic.) He was one of those people, though. You know, the munro baggers. He didn’t even have to mention it, he had that glint in his eyes. One can tell. (He was meeting his daughter somewhere down the road, so he was going to the meeting point across the munros. Of course.)

Just for the record, I’d like to point out that sitting on top of the Conic Hill in October has been the least windy hill top experience of my entire life. And also one of the sunniest. This has left me with a conspiracy suspicion about Scotland actually being a sunny place and the local councils spreading stories of the opposite to keep the eager masses out. You know, those people who are only willing to walk in the sunshine. People very different from us, of course.

Day two of the way.
Day two of the way. K getting  familiar with the loch.

The second half of the day was spent walking parallel to the shore of Loch Lomond. And we did it while walking in the sun, making friends with the birds, gasping at the lake. K did take off her boots and tested the water. She had her swimming clothes on her and she was not afraid to use them! But since our next stopping point (=accommodation) was quite a while away, she decided against walking into the fresh waters of the Great Britain’s largest inland water body.

I don’t have any memories of the dinner we ate in Rowardennan. Maybe we survived on the mist.

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DAY 3, Rowardennan to Inverarnan: 22 km

I remember the morning as a state of awe at the completely placid Loch Lomond. The scenery looked like something out of mythological Japan, with the old pier posts standing sentinel in the water and the mists consolingly crawling around the crooked pines. I also remember this day as the first one of the West Highland Way when I really started tapping into the joy of our walk. A lot of this day’s path was bordered with walking pole piercings and mountain bike lines in the mud, remnants of the all travellers who already had passed by. All those patterns were definitely filled with joy as well. The path was also getting slightly steeper and more interesting as it sloped between large oak trees and slightly smaller boulders. As I’m saying – all the reason to feel more joyful.

The path of day three.
The way of day three.
The way of day three.

Today also brought me face to face with Truth: long-distance walking is the most sensible way to spend one’s time. I’ll be taking this to the Academy of Sciences one day. Here’s just the shortest explanation as to why:

– you are surrounded by some of the best scenery in the world

– you are in the fresh air

– you are in the best of company (either just you or your well-chosen companions from the same or different species)

– you have to eat at least 3500 kcal a day

– all the people you meet are deeply happy, as you chance upon them when they are doing the thing they love the most (you can recognise the faces who do not want to be in theatres and cinemas, oh yes, you can)

– your mind is forced to rest while your body is applauding you at every step

It is a mystery why everyone has not already abandoned everything. I shall enquire into this as well before turning to the Academy.

Day three of the way.
Day three of the way.

And after having moved pass the magnificent oak trees bending their branches into lake water, and having passed Rob Roy’s cave (meeting your teenage heroes in real life is always a strange moment out of some forgotten cross-media narrative), we walked on a lentil soup coloured road until reaching our chambers for the night at Beinglas Farm. And if that doesn’t win a bad description award, I don’t know what will. (Just for the record, we slept in a camping pod.)

Notes taken: you know you are trekking when:

– the moment when you take out a clean pair of socks for the next day makes you squeal

– you don’t want the 5p change because you would have to carry it

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Day three of the way.

DAY 4, Inverarnan to Tyndrum: 19.5 km

The first half of our fourth day’s walk had me transfixed on the milky fog hiding and disclosing a large group of fir tree tops on the horizon. What we saw was a form of dancing glue, magically moving through that very air we were about to step into. On day 4, we finally came to some mountains that reminded me of their relatives in Snowdonia. I had not known I had walked with that wish in my mind, but apparently so. (It is a worrisome thing, discovering that you had secrets from yourself.) The much-blessed sun actually shone on top of one of the mountains in that very exact manner it had dome on top of another mountain in Wales. That made me realise that 14.02.2015 has been one of the happiest days of my life so far. And that I’m still living in this year.

The old military road, day four of the way.
The old military road, day four of the way.

Keeping to the tradition, it did not rain. We walked a lot on the old military road that meandered through and under ancient-looking fir trees. During these kilometres, we finally understood that we were getting away from the civilization.

It was Sunday. K’s toe was not feeling very well but the ibuprofen gel did help. We thought about the 30 km day ahead of us in the coming week (Tuesday!) and got slightly worried about the possibility of rain (I said rain, right? I actually meant what the forecast said: severe downpours and a hail storm). In the evening, we managed to control ourselves in the biggest (and almost only) shop in Tyndum and not buy a magazine (I’m talking about me), and met the French horn player again, and then spent most of our time looking at people trying on their rainproofs. We had rainproofs as well, new ones, even. And we also wanted to see how they kept out the elements. What we didn’t have were rainproof boots. But we had sprayed ours with all the possible sprays. So, we had given our best.

On our way to the camping cabins we took a path that was fringed by the yellowest birch trees on this side of the Scottish border. Every step on the path felt like walking in the first dream of my childhood. This is how our fourth day slowly turned itself into a friendly beast from story books: it brought the first mountains into our sight and showed us paths into many parallel narratives within our time.

At some point at the very end of our road, we saw movement through the trees to our left. And there they were, a group of people, most of them old gentlefolk, sitting in the low river, panning for cold.

Day four of the way.
Day four of the way.

Places are like magic. In all the places you go to, you don’t find anything more than just the things you have taken there yourself.