Cadiz – It’s where all the cruise ships stop

I took the slow train from Madrid. I didn’t realise that it was the slow train, and it was much slower than it was scheduled to be.

None of this matters, though and it only served to help me slow down and get into the spirit of Cadiz. Even by Spanish standards, Andalusia is relaxed. Even by Andalusian standards, Cadiz is relaxed.  It is the oldest city in Europe and the centre is a maze of tiny streets broken up by hidden squares and joined through mysterious arches.

The cathedral at the city centre provides a landmark (actually more of a soundmark with ringing bells every 15 minutes) and gives a clue to the city history – with a mix of neoclassical domes atop baroque architecture.

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Cathedral view

Pass through the Roman walls and history becomes, well history. You’ll find yourself following families with well packed trailers heading to the beach: choose from the closest Playa de la Caleta or a slightly longer stroll to the 8km expanse of Playa de la Victoria. You’ll be surrounded by sunworshippers playing latino tunes and bronzing by the second.

It is a complete contrast but a perfect way to build up an appetite to make the most of the tapas and restaurant offers as the sun goes down. I’d recommend a wander along calle Virgen de la Palma en route to the restaurants in Barrio del Populo.

Mornings can be spent wandering and exploring – even after a full week I still had more to discover. Sit a while to enjoy your coffee and watch the bustle around the new market square or explore a museum and the botanic gardens.

Whether you’re there for a day or for a longer escape, you will find something special and be better for slowing down for a while.

The title of this post was one description offered to me, in complete contrast to another one – my initial inspiration to visit. The real Cadiz? It’s whatever you want it to be, but if you’re on a cruise ship – definitely make sure you disembark when you stop there.

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Rooftop terrace, complete with bell tower at Casa Pirates


My trip was self-funded and I stayed at Casa Caracol, in their Casa de Pirates. It’s a great place to stay where you can choose to socialise with the other guests, or luxuriate in time by yourself.

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When I travel…

Although I love the freedom of travelling solo, it’s not always easy. It’s tempting to stay safely in the comfort zone of your accommodation and not explore the local area as you might have thought you would when planning your trip.

Here are a few things that I try and do to ease myself out and about at a new destination:

Send postcards

This is a great thing to do in so many ways. For the recipient it is always a surprise to get a postcard from a far-flung destination and when you return home and visit friends and family it’s so lovely to get a reminder of your travels. Take your time to find nice postcards so that you have to visit more than one shop and enjoy the process of browsing around, exploring the streets on a mission to find the ideal postcard.

The second part to this tip is to find a post office to buy your stamps. Try out some basic language skills (or detailed sign language) and enjoy sticking your stamps on and posting them to their destinations.

If you want to take your time your can add a third part to this – buy the postcards and stamps, write them at your leisure and then challenge yourself to find the most obscure post box in the town.

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Trying out a new coffee shop

Coffee

Coffee/café/caffee – this is a universal language and by taking a while to sit and familiarize yourself with what the locals do, you can try different things next time. Enjoy sitting in a shady square, by the side of the road or in a cosy café.

Get used to listening to the language being spoken and notice the differences between how things would happen at home. For me this is usually a much calmer affair. People stopping to take the time to sit and drink rather than grabbing a takeout and drinking on the go.

People watching

You can do this at home or away and this is a good activity when drinking coffee (as above). Sit a while and watch. Take in the language, the mannerisms, the fashion as well as the sights and smells of your new location. Take yourself a block or two off the main tourist drags and see how things change. Offer a smile and maybe even start a conversation.

Run

This won’t be for everybody, but if you like a little bit of activity then lace up your running shoes and head out for a morning or evening jog. There is a community of runners in nearly every place I’ve been to and you can choose whether to go where the locals go – check out any parks, rivers or promenades – or whether to use it to explore the city before the tourists have finished thinking about breakfast.

If you go early, although the attractions might not be open, you can usually get a people-free view of the outside so don’t forget your camera.

I’m a morning runner and really like seeing the city wake up. Getting a feel for morning routines and seeing things more in their natural state.

Public transport

If you’re staying in a big city then this can be essential for getting around. Most ticket machines have English options so it’s easy to buy a ticket – figure out if it’s better value to buy just one, or to buy multiple tickets that will be valid for your stay.

You may also consider taking a day trip outside the city and making your own way there on public transport can be an adventure in itself before you even get to your destination.

Parque del laberint, Barcelona. A little off the beaten track

Seek out the different

Rather than following the guidebooks, I like to search the internet for “unusual things to do in…” this provides some different options to the norm and gives an alternative if you are looking for a quiet day away from the crowds.

Whether you choose one of these things to kick start your trip, or have your own strategies, the thing to do is to get out there and enjoy.

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On a train….

I’m once again on a European rail journey – something that is becoming at least an annual event. I still like to be able to avoid the time spent waiting at airports and be able to embrace the freedom of rail travel: you can bring your own food and drink, move about as much as you want and the seats are spacious enough that you don’t feel as if you are getting to know your neighbour far too intimately far too soon. As if you need more reason, you can travel from city to city meaning that you don’t need to waste time or money on transfers. And you get to see the country you’re travelling through – it’s like an advance course in cultural integration, albeit from a safe distance in a fast moving vehicle.

This time I’m on my way to Marseille, which has received mixed responses from the people I’ve told. It should be sunny. It’s a bit industrialised. Well, it’s in the south of France. All of these I expect to be true. Marseille is by all accounts atypical to the rest of Provence – all lavender fields and long, lazy lunches – and I think it thrives on this. A large dose of urban realism in amongst the retirement dreams of English expats. To be honest, it wouldn’t be my first choice for a destination, but I happen to be attending a conference there and I love the chance to combine work and travel.

This meant that I could choose to take the train – it may seem like it takes longer (8 hours from central London) but that’s time I’d rather spend on the train than a last minute flight. I’m travelling at school holiday time, which isn’t ideal and it felt like most of London wanted to go the exact same way I was going. Coupled with that, long delays on previous Eurostar trains meant for a fractious queue to check in for the train. Fortunately, due to lack of trains at the start of my journey I had given myself a long window for travel to St Pancras and it seems that this allowed me plenty of check in time.

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First view of Vieux Port, Marseille

Stocked up on quality picnic food, I simply had to wait for the platform to be announced, board the train (stacking my luggage on the overhead racks) and wait for departure. Despite earlier delays, my train left only a few minutes late and made up any lost time somewhere under the English Channel. Arrival in Lille was unremarkable and the 20 minutes change over time felt like plenty. When the platform was announced for Marseille I followed everyone down the stairs and checked the train plan to know exactly where to stand to find my allocated coach and seat. I’m upstairs on the duplex train, with a spare seat next to me. I’m logged on to the free wifi, which works perfectly and I can read, stroll to the café car, snooze and just enjoy the scenery until I arrive with ease at the gare St Charles in Marseille, a short walk to my accommodation.

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Hascombe Standing Stones

“Does anyone know anything about the Hascombe standing stones?” It was an unanswered post on a local FaceBook page that sparked my curiosity.

I live not far from Hascombe and was somewhat surprised that I had never heard of them. A quick internet search revealed little more information than I already had. I wrote it down on my list of places to visit and two years later it was time to check it off that list.

The forecast was that the sleet would stop mid-morning. I set off, nonethewiser as to my exact destination but with the assumption that a stone circle would be fairly easy to spot. Has combe Hill is the site of an Iron Age fort. To the untrained eye this means some uneven, grassed areas.

 

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Views of the South Downs

 

From the top of the hill, there are amazing views in all directions, even on a grey December day. By the time you get to the top of the hill your blood is pumping and the weather is no longer your primary  concern.

There was no sign of a stone circle. I don’t like to feel defeated and although I had enjoyed the walk exploring the woods, stumbling across sculpted seating and just being wowed by the Surrey Hills; I was disappointed not to have found the stones.

 

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Grains by Tom Nicholson Smith

 

On Day 2 of my now, self-titled “Quest”, after some careful research I had found some clues and set off again.  It had been raining heavily for most of the month and there was a lot of mud. I pretty much started off by walking up a stream.

I was on the right track, but feeling despondent: still no sign. Maybe they weren’t there and the lack of information was because it was actually a hoax. As these thoughts filled my head, I crested a hill and there they were. It seemed impossible that they were so well hidden from pretty much every view of and from the hill. What a special place. I continued my route, delighted that my rusty navigation skills got me back to my starting point.

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Hascombe Stone Circle

The Hascombe standing stones aren’t prehistoric. They were erected in the late 1990s by the modern order of Druids and even without the history it’s well worth an explore. To me it feels like a magical place whether that’s because of the history, the natural landscape or the spirits celebrated by the Druids.

 

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3000 miles: The Finale

It took about a month before I fully admitted my 3000 miles challenge to myself, but nevertheless I as committed from the start. Committed to recording my miles that is, rather than to anything special to achieve them. Even though 3000 miles is a long way, 12 months is a long time too, right?

I had been accepted to join a volunteer project team for Cricket Without Boundaries and I was going to be asking people to donate to support the work that they do in HIV prevention, cricket development and generally promoting the wider benefits of sport to encourage positive behaviour changes in sub-Saharan Africa. In order to do this, I needed something big enough to inspire and interest people to encourage them to consider donating.

To punctuate my journey (3000 miles was my target because it roughly correlates to the distance between London and an unspecified point in sub-Saharan Africa) and to act as a hook for fundraising I entered some events, but the majority of my miles were achieved going about my daily business.

These are some highlights:

The Fox Ultra: 60km of trails around Guildford in the Surrey Hills. The furthest distance I’ve ever run.

Snowdonia Trail Half Marathon: what it says on the tin – if only I’d read the tin before signing up – running up a mountain but fortuitously in glorious sunshine.

parkrun: a constant in my calendar every week whether trying to run fast, deliberately running slow, in fancy dress or as a celebration.

Uganda: I took my running abroad this year training in both France and Spain but my highlight was running with a backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains.

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Walking into town – discovering new routes and using it to create some headspace in my day

My traditional “Twixtmas” exploration of the local countryside led me to finding the stone circle and some new running routes for next year.

A meandering exploration of the footpaths and bridle paths in the Surrey Hills – my first off-road cycling adventure and one of my longest cycle rides ever.

What I’ve learnt:

I’m not a cyclist. I had anticipated that I would become a hardy, all-weather cyclist but it turns out that I remain a fair weather rider. I’ve developed an appreciation for my two-wheeled steed, but I like having my feet on the ground.

Our bodies are fragile. I succumbed to a back injury making any sort of movement limited for three weeks. I can do more to care for and nurture my body, but there’s always going to be a time when limits are reached and you have to stop.

Conflicting goals can make things harder, even when they seem to support each other. I had my miles to do but I also wanted to train for specific events. These do not necessarily go together. For me, less is more for optimal performance.

Being outside is good. Even when I didn’t want to, I would try to do 1 mile knowing this would take me at longest 20 minutes, at quickest 8 minutes. No matter the time of day or the weather I always felt better for this.

What next?

I’m looking forward to not counting my miles, to being able to enjoy the activity when and where I want to do it.

I want to commit to outside everyday – ideally an hour – if I can

I want to get back to other activities – you may find me back on the cricket pitch, or out on horseback. There will probably be less running and more exploring.

And what of my volunteering effort? I have raised a little over £1000 which is valuable funding for local Ambassadors to sustain the effort and support other local coaches in using cricket to reinforce messages about HIV prevention.

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I’m continuing to help CWB with information for new volunteers. If you’re interested in volunteering – do get in touch, I would love to help you decide to do it. I can’t tell you what you’ll learn and experience but it will be positive for you, for the children you coach and in making the world a better place.

My fundraising page will be open for a short while longer, so if you would like to support CWB it’s an easy way to do it. I would like to thank my friends and family who have supported me through donations and through keeping me motivated for my challenge. Thank you also to my running and cycling buddies who have helped me get out the door and make things fun.

 


The final stats:

Total mileage: 2316

Total miles running: 1024

Total miles walking: 729

Total miles cycling: 563

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Tallinn: positively surprising

Arriving for breakfast and the receptionist stood to attention and offered me a little bow. I’m not in Japan, but in Estonia – positively surprising as the tourist board describes it, and indeed I find it is.

Tallinn was European City of Culture in 2011 and Estonia is now president of the Council of the European Union. The country welcomes more tourists than its population every year – which may explain why in the capital city public transport is free to residents.  Although you may not need to use it because the city is small – everything is 10 minutes apart, including the tram from the airport to the city centre.

There are two parts to the city – the UNESCO world heritage site of the Old Town and everything outside the walls.  Within the Old Town there are a lot of cobbles, many churches and quite a few hills. Its pretty in all directions from the pastel coloured buildings to the red roofs and spires of various shapes and sizes.  The Town Square provides a useful navigation point. En route to my hotel I went past the KGB prison cells, a number of cosy looking cafes, bars and restaurants and a good proportion of souvenir shops.  Along Pikk Street there are also a number of historical buildings with useful information boards outside in both Estonian and English.

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Food and drink is important in an Estonian winter. We started one evening in the Beer House micro-brewery. We followed this at Pegasus restaurant where, on the surface the menu consisted standard food, but digging deeper into the menu you find yourself experiencing a mixture of uniquely Estonian tastes – the tangy sea buckthornberry being one. We finished our meal with a dessert that grandma would make: rye cream jelly with a cranberry sauce.

Our waitress said that Estonian food would make us feel fulfilled and it certainly did; enough to face the cold air on the walk home.  The following evening was just as good – starting with speciality, home-baked bread and continuing with reasonably-priced, high-quality food. The service everywhere is exceptional.

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Even in November, when it’s cold by UK standards, it’s well worth a visit. The Old Town is beautiful and contrasts with the modern city. Walking around is reward in itself, but if you need more the gastronomy speaks for itself and you won’t be disappointed.

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Uganda

Uganda – known as the Pearl of Africa. A beautiful surprise when you’re not expecting it? Well, Uganda is certainly beautiful and unexpected. More than the views, it’s the people that make Uganda what you might expect from Africa through a shy smile, infectious laughter and terrible time keeping.

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If there was ever a greater contrast, then Africa is it. From the bustling, busy towns and cities to the peace of the countryside. Although it’s never quiet. The wildlife is bigger, more colourful and definitely louder than at home. I was travelling in south western Uganda where giant cranes are commonplace and fish eagles rule the roost in the National Parks.

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Aside from the Parks, the attraction of Africa is just being there. You don’t find so many tourist attractions and it’s a mission and a half to even find a postcard. But sit a while on the corner of the cross-roads in Kasese and you will not be bored. Between the boda-boda and the bicycles there are vehicles of every size and shape carrying not only people, but animals, bananas and even furniture. You won’t be hurried on if you’re lingering over your samosa and krest, but as soon as you look as if you might have finished, the table will be cleared before you know it. The towns have a way of nestling in to the hills. They provide a flash of red and yellow against the dark greens of the hills and mountains.

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Whilst you may think that every shop is the same, you have to explore them and find out which supermarket sells the crispy crisps and where they may be a bakery hidden in the back. I spent half an hour on a scavenger hunt for postcards. Each shop I tried had none, but gave me a clue to where to try next. Alas, postcards were finished in Kasese and it was by chance in a hotel two stops on in our trip that I found the only decent postcards in the region.

If you want to get away from it, then Uganda has some perfect hideaways and there are numerous opportunities for hiking – as long as you don’ mind hills. you will be distracted from your usual routine and if you can visit a school, you will end up feeling like a super-hero when you try and leave.

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