Natasha von Geldern Travel

Travel writing and photography from Natasha von Geldern

The golden road to Samarkand April 25, 2010

Filed under: Asia,photography,travel — Natasha von Geldern @ 7:26 pm
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Published on www.travelbite.co.uk on February 22nd 2008.

Samarkand has been the climax of every Silk Road odyssey since the time of Alexander the Great and the dazzling monuments of the city still afford travellers a glimpse into a time that has become the stuff of legend and poetry.

At the crossroads of the silk roads running between China, India, Persia and the west for thousands of years, Samarkand  is today a relatively off-the-beaten tourist track destination, particularly for independent travellers.  Apart from distance I don’t know why – the excitement of standing where Alexander feasted, Genghis Khan destroyed and Tamberlaine rebuilt and reigned is palpable.

On the outskirts of the city is once mighty Afrosiab, at one time called Marakanda. This is the city which Macedonian Alexander would have visited in 330 BC and described as “more beautiful than I ever imagined”. He celebrated his victory over the Sogdians by feasting like an oriental potentate and murdering his right-hand general in a rage.

Afrosiab is now an atmospheric, windswept area of strangely lumpy grass where shepherds graze their flocks. A museum contains the remains of artefacts found on this site from 2,000 BC bronze-age burial bracelets to frescoes from a seventh century palace.

But it is the legacy of 14th century ruler Timur that travellers to Central Asia delight over today. Marlowe’s ruthless Tamberlaine made the town his capital in 1370 and over 50 years he and his sons built what was to become an almost mythical city.

Enormous turquoise domes, ribbed and ornamented or smooth and sparkling, top these jewels of Islamic architecture, immense in their scale. The mosque built for Bibi Khayam – the Chinese queen of the emperor Timur (Tamberlaine) – has long since collapsed under its own weight but the gateway remains and is 35m high.

The city’s centrepiece is the complex of medressahs called the Registan, which was built by Timur and his son Ulughbek in the 15th century.

On their vast facades yellow striped lions pounce after fallow deer, an unusual departure from the Islamic bar on depicting people or animals. Inside every surface is decorated in lapis blue and shiny gold with endless patterns of twining leaves and flowers.

A friendly police guard will let you climb one of the minarets at the Registan for a small back-pocket tip. Squeeze up the narrow stairs, scramble through the reconstruction worksites and poke your head and shoulders through a hole in the roof.

Careful shuffling around allows spectacular views of the mosques, medressahs and mausoleums across the city in the golden evening light. The leafy boulevards and traffic of the modern city swirl around the monuments like islands but Samarkand still has one foot in the past.

In the 19th century Byron imagined a place “where the grave, white-turbaned merchants go” and in the street a gentleman in a long coat and bulbous embroidered cap walks with his head a little bowed and hands clasped behind his back. He is overtaken by a trotting donkey cart driven by two boys taking their produce to the main bazaar. Follow them to find pyramids of glowing plums, cherries, grapes and vegetables of all descriptions.

Round, flat Samarkand bread is decorated with pink and yellow flower designs. Ladies in long loose floral dresses offer us shots of fresh boysenberry juice.

On the road to Afrosiab, the tombs of Sahr-i-Zindar house the memorials to the family of Timur and feature glorious intact majolica tilework.

Take a day trip to Timur’s hometown, Shakhrisabz. Here again, only the enormous (38m) gateway survives of his magnificent palace but there are a number of exquisite mosques and mausoleums, including the tomb where the ruler intended to be buried.

Sitting in a vine shaded courtyard under a pomegranate tree, eating cherries and gnawing on a chunk of nougat bought at the bazaar. That’s how you know you’re in Samarkand.

Natasha von Geldern

Details:

A comfortable, modern train runs between Samarkand and the Uzbek capital of Tashkent twice daily, with a travelling time of around five hours.

There are a range of guesthouses and B&B accommodation available in Samarkand. The writer stayed at Bahodir B&B.

The best time to holiday in Uzbekistan is in spring, from May to June, avoiding the baking summer and freezing winter. 

Inspiration from James Elroy Flecker:

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
   When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
   Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

We travel not for trafficking alone;
   By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
   We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

 

The glory of steam – Secret London

Filed under: Secret London — Natasha von Geldern @ 7:16 pm
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Published on www.travelbite.co.uk on September 25th 2009.

Last weekend was the first public opening of the Markfield Beam Engine and Museum in north-east London. This is a unique opportunity to see one of the glories of the Industrial Revolution so Natasha von Geldern went along to report for travelbite.co.uk.

It is quite a sight, this engine, with its tall Doric columns painted blue and white, and the crossbeams decorated with acanthus leaves. Sunlight streams through the tall Victorian lattice windows and the whump, whump of the giant pistons has a comforting regularity. But back in the day it would have been a different story. It was a dark, dirty and sometimes dangerous job for the men who ran and maintained the pumping station, and lived in cottages nearby.

The Markfield beam engine is one of the best examples of Victorian industrial technology still in existence at its original site, next to the Lea River. In fact it is believed to be the only surviving eight column engine in situ.

 And the reason for this remarkable piece of engineering? Sewerage. This was the water and sewerage pumping station for Tottenham and Wood Green for 100 years from 1864. Water pollution and disease in the area necessitated the establishment of a public water supply and sewerage disposal system and the engine was the heart of the operation. It was built around 1886 at Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire and was designed to discharge four million gallons of effluent every 24 hours.

This newest of London’s museums is run by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers, some of whom have been working on the restoration project for 30 years. Trustee Fred Clark said that they have been working without support from the local authority for many years but now they finally have the support of Harringey Council, as well as lottery funding.

Last Sunday they saw the fruits of their efforts realised on the inaugural steam weekend. Excellent information boards help visitors discover the wonders of the ‘double expansion compound system’ and the centrifugal speed limiter.

There is a brand new café with indoor and outdoor seating and a good selection of hot and cold food, including my favourite Welsh Rarebit. Outside, the site is still a work in progress but landscaped rose gardens should be in place by the end of October, which will make this a very pleasant spot to spend an afternoon in north-east London.

The <a href=”http://www.mbeam.org/&#8221; target=”_blank”>Markfield Beam Engine & Museum website</a> has more information on the history, technology, opening times and scheduled “steaming” days.

 So head along for a day out in north-east London and discover a masterpiece of Victorian engineering.

Natasha von Geldern

Travel to the Markfield Beam Engine & Museum:

The museum is seven minutes walk from Seven Sisters, South Tottenham and Tottenham Hale Underground/Overground stations, all of which are around 20 minutes from Central London.

If you are travelling by car the museum is on Markfield Road N15 4RB, immediately off the A10.

 

Mumbai Madness

Filed under: Asia,photography,travel — Natasha von Geldern @ 7:09 pm
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Published on www.travelbite.co.uk on February 20th 2008.

From the air at six am Mumbai is a jewelled archipelago, glittering in the inky night. The daytime reality is less jewel-like but equally fascinating. The sights, smells and sounds of India’s most populous city can be overwhelming, with even a brief taxi ride offering a kaleidoscope of noisy colour through the windows.

The contrasts of modern India are increasingly apparent. Huge billboards light up the night with the smiling faces of Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar advertising life insurance.

Beneath them are pavement sleepers, pariah dogs and seething traffic of all types, including horse-drawn carts. Behind the parade of commerce and public life the endless slum encampments can be seen, teeming with life, as brought to life so vividly by Gregory David Roberts in his novel Shantaram.

A stroll along Marine Drive to the lookout on Narriman point is a relaxing way to walk off your dinner. Mumbaikers jog along the wide footpath in their sports gear or sit on the promenade looking out to see.

The former home of Mahatma Gandhi is a must see. Mani Bhavan has been converted into a memorial museum with exhibits illustrating his life and many believe his spirit still lives here.

Catch a taxi up to leafy Malabar hill and pay your respects at the colourfully decorated Jain temple. From the lush Malabar gardens you can see out across the city and the famous Chowpatty beach where fishermen spread their nets and families picnic in the sun.

The gorgeous art-deco interior of the Eros Cinema is the perfect location to watch the latest Bollywood blockbuster. Be prepared for the excitable audience to make their appreciation of the film loudly heard.

Take a day trip on the ferry to Elephanta Island, which departs regularly from the river steps beside the Gateway to India monument. From the harbour you get the best views of the giant Gateway as well as the luxury Taj hotel. The rest of the city quickly disappears into the murky pollution. On the island there is an eighth century Mahura temple to Shiva, carved out of the rock with impressive pillared halls and friezes.

Spend a few early evening hours lying about on the grass maidan by the courts of justice, watching the cricketers and children playing.

Sitting outside in our hotel courtyard in the evening a high-wheeled silver swan sleigh passes by, bells jingling on the horses bridle. It is followed by a man propelling himself along on a low-wheeled trolley. After a few minutes the trolley man returns, holding onto the back of someone’s bicycle to hitch a ride.

Magnificent, miserable and full of life, Mumbai cannot fail to make an impact.

It is now even easier to take in the highlights of Mumbai as the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation has launched the first-ever guided Mumbai Museum Bus Tour. This will take visitors around the various museums in the comfort of a specially designed purple, air-conditioned bus. The twice-daily bus tour departs from the Gateway of India at 09:00 and 13.30 local time, and costs just 500 rupees (approximately £7) per person.

 

Upon the Upland Road – Tajikistan part II

Written while travelling in Central Asia June 2006

The relative luxury of private Jeep hire after all the public transport. A sturdy green Russian UAZ (say Waahz). The driver’s name is Pamiri-bek, most appropriate for a Pamir jeep driver! A skinny, ex-army, Kyrgyz from Murghab. The Wakhan valley follows the river border with Afghanistan. It is green and dotted with places of cultural interest. Fortresses built to guard the silk road. A ruined buddhist stupa and monastic caves. Zoroastrian fire platforms. Ancient petroglyphs on red rock (along with modern graffiti).

Climbing up onto the plateau, the Hindu Kush rises up behind us, looking steeper with every minute. Now the road bounces through a dun landscape, only relieved occasionally by small lakes fringed with grass, snow or salt. eside one, a few herdsmen watch their foraging flocks. The hills are alternatively velvety or sandpaper-like. The great curling horns of Marco Polo sheep lie in the desert at the side of the road, their points upward like some strange snake. A view of the magnificent Wakhan range with the great Pamir (plateau) between us and the mountains. Play spot the marmot, the fat golden furry creatures scamper across the desert, sit in the sun then disappear into their burrows. Pamir-bek beeps the horn to make them run faster.

Camping for two nights beside the gorgeous lake Yashil kul. Getting up early to take pictures of the lake and mountains. Yak-milk on my breakfast cereal. There is no-one else here.

Hundres of miles of high altitude landscape, at or around 4000 metres. Driving and driving across gorno-badakhshan. After the village of Alichur the plain becomes gold green and there are herds of yaks and goats. See the yaks run across the plain, majestic in their size and shagginess, their tails pluming out behind them.

Small groups of yurts – there are many kyrgyz people in this part of Tajikistan. Some are still being constructed, the felt walls hoisted onto the red wood frame. Applique decoration and tufts of black yak fur. In every one we are invited in for bread, yoghurt and deliciously rich and yellow yak cream. Then they insist on the photo session – I (the papparazzi) must take photos of various family groups before we are allowed to leave.

Murgab is a wild east ghost town. At 3600m the light is blinding from the whitewashed buildings and dusty streets. Many Kyrgyz men walking about in their long coats and distsinctive tall squashy felt hats. A good base for more jeep safaris into surrounding valleys, and more yurt hospitality in the jailoos!  These families have many children. The oldest boy performs the handwashing ritual for the guests and his father and uncle (the women don’t join the group but sit at the side of the yurt watching). The grandmother rocks a low cradle and spins wool on an old spindle.

After being flung about the interior of a jeep, had my insides rearranged and knocked my funny bone twice, I think I can safely say I won’t be taking up 4WDriving as a hobby, at least not in a UAZ.
 
In some sort of personal Silk Road tradition, it must always be difficult to get to Osh. The long last Marshrutka journey had the usual initial concerns over the health of the vehicle – stopping frequently to haul buckets of water from the river to fill the radiator and pour over the engine. Getting over the 4655m pass was a small miracle, the tension in the back was palpable as we all willed the engine to survive. Delays at the middle of nowhere border posts (there are 7 checkpoints to go through, each a small shed with a couple of army guys bunking down). On the Kyrgyz side, finding anyone willing to place an entry stamp in my passport proves impossible.

Through the passes, eventually the marshrutka rolls down into the soft green, forgiving hills of Kyrgyzstan. It is still high enough for yaks but now the first Kyrgyz horse herds can be seen galloping in the valley. Arriving at Sary Tash the great Pamir Alai range is behind us now, including Pik Lenin, soft pink fading in the twilight.

One final mountain pass and then, about 10 o’clock a hissing puncture. The spare proves deficient and the driver and his mate spend long hours attempting a repair. Sometimes we creep forward a couple of miles, mostly we sit in the dark. With the help of a passing truck the original tyre is finally repaired and we limp into Osh around 6am.

What a trip, what a country. Staying with local people every night for 17 days. Incredibly harsh and beautiful landscapes, endless bureaucracy, hospitable people. It is not really ready for tourism yet. Certainly unforgettable.

 

Upon the Upland Road – Tajikistan part I

Tajikistan must contain some of the most beautiful and interesting landscapes in the world. On the other side of things it is probably the most diffiicult countries I have travelled in, perhaps the only difficult country?  From the bureaucratic hassles to the rough transport to the toilet facilities – it is not for the faint hearted. However, travelling in the footsteps of Marco Polo, where the great gamesters did their sneaking and where Younghusband was tossed out on his ear by the Russians – the excitement of actually being here is almost too much!

Ancient Penjikent, city of the Sogdians, glows yellow in the evening sun. Walls, doorways, hearths, a high citadel. It rises above the modern city, which is green in the valley of the Zerhavshan. The first of many homestays – plov (rice pilaf), sweet penjikent wine and endless quoting of Tajik proverbs. A lively bazaar, tajik music blaring from the loud speakers; old gentlemen in turbans leaning on their walking sticks.

The road to Dushanbe is really a road that ought not exist. It is insane. Imagine the very worst skifield road you’ve ever seen, at 3000 plus metres. The chunky Volga taxi takes everything in its stride. We made a couple of short side trips to the lakes of the Shing valley and the beautiful Iskander lake in the Fansky Gory.

In the midst of aridity, sometimes is a fertile river terrace and an explosion of green orchards. Passing through one village, the men line the street outside the cemetery. Squatting on their heels with hands cupped before them in rayer. When it is finished they pass their hands over their faces in the graceful gesture of thanks and stand up. They wear dark blue dressing gowns tied around the waist with a bright scarf and the usual black and white cap.

Once we hit the main Tashkent-Dushanbe road, the condition improves, there are occasional stretches of seal. When we crest the final pass we are greeted with the endless pinnacles and fins of snowy mountain ranges in every direction.

Dushanbe is a pleasant city with tree lined boulevards. The first taste of Tajik bureaucracy – the dreaded registration. The women favour bright coloured dresses and scarves and heavily pencilled eyebrows, sometimes sporting the monobrow look.

Before undertaking the famous Pamir highway you have to get from Dushanbe to the town of Khorog. This proved to be more challenging than anticipated. When the marshrutka (minivan) set off it was clear the starter motor was *&%$ed. That meant at least 20 times during the day I was convinced it would never start again. But it did, along with the smell of a gear box in pain. The road again begs the use of the word “insane”. I’m not sure which is worse, not having anything to hold on to, not being able to lean back because the backrest is made of wood and ends at my waist, or not being able to sit up straight because the roof is too low.

The road is empty apart from some stray beasts, another labouring minivan, a few lorries, and the odd derelict tank left over from the civil war. We follow the river, the road continues to wind and the marshrutka and its passengers continue to bounce. I am nostalgic for the Volga.

The summit of every pass is a triumph. At 3,200m the hills are still green, with zebra stripes of snow. On the other side the nearly full moon is bright on a range of mountain peaks. Descending, the road becomes one of those cinematic trails – sidling around the side of the mountains, on one side a rock cliff you can’t see the top of, on the other side an abyss you can’t see the bottom of. The little girl sitting opposite has light golden brown eyes.

Tajikistan is a land of swift flowing rivers that charge through deep gorges then suddenly widen out to braid through shingle grey and red silt in shallow valleys. The greeness here borders on tropical, especially after a rain shower, and with electircal storms committing violence in the sky above the mountains. The greeness extends far up the mountain slops – until it reaches the snow line or incredible castles of reddish rock. One striking mountain is folded over 180 degrees, like so many layers of paper.

Across the Oxus river is Afghanistan, a stone’s throw away. Donkey trains and women wearing bourka walking on the narrow paths. Mud villages and dry stone walls.

It was difficult to hitch a ride on day two to Khorog, having  abandoned the Marshrutka in Khailaykhum for a bed in someone’s home – of course a Central Asian bed of quilts on the floor. But it was the right decision because a few hours up the road we discovered a large section of the road had disappeared into a curving arc of the river! The poor marshrutka passengers had spent the night in the van.

After 28 hours of local hospitality it was finally cleared with explosives and ancient bulldozers. The people were so kind, providing food and a place to sleep for all the stranded people. I’m sure this is the only time in my life when I’ve had vodka with lunch, tea and supper.  Their toasts are elaborate, alternately serious and humourous and completely unintelligible to me. When called upon to reciprocate, l can only come up with inanities such as “Nova Zelandiya!” and “Nyet Taliban!”.

 

Walking in Mallorca

Published on www.travelbite.co.uk 14 December 2009

Ascending through the steeply terraced olive groves we can’t help looking back again and again at the magnificent vistas – back down the thickly wooded valley and across to the mountains. Natasha von Geldern escapes to Mallorca for a walking holiday in the late October sun.

This perennially popular Balearic island is better known for its beach resorts but in the off season a mild climate, cheap flights and hire cars add up to a perfect destination for breaking out the walking boots and heading for the hills.

Mallorca is surprisingly green, mainly because of the many evergreen trees, and particularly after the autumn rains have washed everything clean and the fresh new grass has sprung up in the fig and olive orchards. But it was the mountains we had come to see…

The Tossals Verds Circuit

This attractive and varied walk took us about four-and-a-half hours with a few little breaks and photo opportunities built in. The initial quarter of the walk is a steepish descent on a rocky track down a tree-lined gorge – a good workout for the knees and quads.

The recently updated Cicerone walking guide recommends a torch for the string of five tunnels to be traversed. Although our kind hosts at our Mallorca accommodation lent us a torch we didn’t end up using it as you can always see the light at the end and on a bright day there weren’t many patches the light didn’t reach.

Through the tunnels you can hear the gurgling of water in the pipeline, like some giant plumbing system of the gods. This is all exciting stuff for kids.

Only-just-one got very excited about the little brown goats leaping about in the rocks above the path, sure-footed and pointy-horned. And she practised cairn building (and dismantling) with white stones while we had a drink and a snack.

After all that down the upwards road must come and when the trail meets the little mountain road its time to ascend up through ancient olive terraces, planted when the only transport would have been by burro.

The Refugi des Tossals Verds was built in 1995 – the first of a network since constructed through the Serra de Tramuntana. Here you can have a drink, a piece of cake, a good meal or even stay the night.

After the refugi we ascended again steeply through the olive groves, looking back again and again at the magnificent views across the valley to the impressive butte of Es Rafel.

Once the summit is reached its easy walking from here on in, along the ridge and through mixed oak and pine forest, eventually dropping down to meet a little canaletta that will lead you back to the car park. There are views of the Cuber reservoir, all deep turquoise below the rose gold mountain of Puig Major (Mallorca’s highest peak but sadly out of bounds to walkers as it’s a military zone).

At the end of the day

After a day out in the mountains it was heavenly to come home to a drink on the comfy sun loungers by the blue pool of our Mallorca Agritourismo. The late afternoon sun hit the terrace and the cypresses cast long shadows across the lawn. Only-just-one giggled swinging in the hammock.

Once she was in bed and with the baby monitor set up we went downstairs to the lounge where they have volumes of poetry and dvds and an open fire for chillier nights. In the dining room, the staff serve up a delicious four course meal prepared with the produce of the surrounding finca and complimented by a good list of mainly Mallorcan wines.

We stayed at the simply lovely Finca Es Castell, a beautiful retreat for relaxing or active holidays in Mallorca. The idyllic rural setting confirms the “agritourismo” tag but comes with an unexpected standard of luxurious accommodation within a sprawling old farmhouse complex.

Es Castell is in the Binibona national park, a collection of unspoilt villages just where rural Mallorca rises into the Tramuntana. The olive groves are thick; the distant music of animal bells is calming; and the old stone buildings are all various shades of peach.

It is run by ex-pat Englishman James and Paola, his Italian partner. The hotel is a popular base for walking holidays in the off season months. James came around the dining room every evening to chat to everyone and see how our day went.

For another evening meal we went to Es Parc, just outside Inca in Selva. This is really a restaurant with a view that serves excellent grilled meat and fish, best accompanied by a plate of grilled vegetables. The views from the terrace out across to the mountains are beautiful. This is a real find and the address is Parc Recreatiu in Selva – just follow the steps on the left of the church (Tel +34 971 515 145).

Other walking holiday options in Mallorca

We also managed to complete a few legs of Mallorca’s own Grand Randonee. The GR221 is known as the Drystone Trail and follows the old cobbled paths which connected villages and estates of the Serra.

I was lucky enough to preview the new Cicerone guide to the GR221, which has all the information you need to tackle this spectacular route.

Another famous walking route in Mallorca is that through the Torrent de Pareis, either descending from Escorca to Sa Calobra or vice versa. This one will have to wait for a return visit sans kids.

There are some lovely easy walks exploring the estate of the Finca Es Castell and from Caimari, the nearest village, you can pick up the pilgrimage trail to the Lluc monastery – Mallorca’s spiritual heart since 1246 and the destination of pilgrims’ footpaths from Inca and Pollenca.

There is an alternative route to Lluc, up a wild private valley but this is a much tougher proposition than the popular pilgrimage trail. So it might be worth asking James from Es Castell to guide you on this walk.

Tips for walking holidays with kids

The first thing to consider is the equipment. We’ve got a Macpac Possum child carrier, which has given excellent service so far. You need to be even more careful about checking the forecast and being prepared for any weather when it comes to children’s clothes.

We had mild weather in October in Mallorca but anything can happen in the mountains and remember small children in a backpack are not moving like you are so dress them with a few more layers. Only-just-one had some warm corduroy trousers and a thin merino top under a fleece but we had warm hats, gloves, coats and snowsuits to hand.

Then we made sure to have a good supply of snacks and drinks and we aimed to stop every one to two hours to let only-just-one out for a bit of a toddle. Lunch was a relaxed hour sitting in the sun.

Apart from all this we found it most important to keep things interesting for your child with walking songs and plenty of chat about what it is you’re seeing on the trail. Animals are of course always a hit but interesting bits of vegetation were good improvised toys. A long feathery piece of grass for tickling Daddy’s neck was fun, as were the dry seed pods of the carob tree.

When to go walking in Mallorca

September weather consists of sunny days and balmy evenings and is the perfect time of year to enjoy an active holiday in Mallorca.

October and November are the “wet season” for Mallorca and the island often experiences storms. However, these tend to be short-lived and we certainly had plenty of beautiful sunshine in late October. We even swam in the sea.

Hardy souls will find settled, if cooler weather over the winter; this is still quite a popular time of year for walkers in Mallorca.

Then of course there’s springtime in Mallorca. From February onwards, when the almond trees are in blossom, is a good time to enjoy a sunshine walking holiday here.

Really the only time to completely avoid is the heat of summer, which is when the island and its resorts are at their busiest.

Natasha von Geldern

More information on walking holidays in Mallorca:

The Finca Es Castell has doubles from €150 April to October and €130 in November and December.

If you’re looking for a guided walking trip Explore runs eight-day coast to coast walking tours in Mallorca.

Balearic Discovery arranges offers tailor-made trips and holidays designed for those looking for an exclusive and individual experience in Mallorca. Jane and Tony have lived here for years and have a wealth of tips to make your holiday in Mallorca special.

We hired a little car from Palma airport through Holidayautos.co.uk – part of lastminute.com – and found it very easy to zip around the island on the excellent road network.

 

Walking in the Valley of the Oranges March 27, 2010

Published on www.travelbite.co.uk 07 December 2009

The sound of waves slapping against the shore outside our hotel window was lulling but the warm October sun was shining and the ancient trails of Mallorca’s Valley of the Oranges beckoned. Natasha von Geldern explores the walking holiday options from Port Soller.

The area around the old town of Soller is called the Valley of the Oranges and citrus fruit was long the source of the region’s prosperity. A sheltered location and proximity to the sea meant good growing conditions and ease of export. The valley is like an amphitheatre with long arms reaching up to the surrounding cliffs.

Nearby on the coast Port Soller is a good base with plenty of hotels, restaurants and of course the beach, where you can swim even in October.

The mountain villages of Binibassi and Fornalutx are among the prettiest in Mallorca and they spread tentacle-like orchards up towards the Serra de Tramuntana – as far as you can imagine it would be possible to grow olives, figs and of course citrus.

There are a multitude of walking route variations in this region. The recently updated Cicerone guide to walking in Mallorca is useful and we put together our own routes using that and a map. Our aim was to get high enough for great views, do a bit of village hopping and enjoy the lovely valley and coastal walking.

 

Wake up and smell the orange blossom

Leaving our hotel on the seafront of Port Soller, we took the narrow road up from the roundabout and in minutes the resort was out of sight and out of mind. This peaceful valley takes you through the gardens and plantations of citrus, olives and almond, and past the farmhouses of Sa Figuera.

Then we turned onto the historic Cami Vell des Port Soller, climbing up and up over the cobbled paths, with carob seedpods crunching underfoot and regular viewpoints down to the sea and the port. The views get better and better as you climb higher.

We continued on a stretch of the Cami de sa Figuera then turned left up the Cami vel de Balitx before dropping down to the Mirador de Ses Barques. Stop to smell the coffee or wave at the daytrippers in their cars.

There are two paths down to Fornalutx from here. We took the Cami d’en Nico and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the Placa Espanya. From Fornalutx we traversed across through the orchards to the hamlet of Binibassi and hence to a quiet road that leads back to Soller past lush gardens spilling over golden walls.

From Soller we caught the tram back to Port Soller. If you haven’t had your ensaimada fix since the breakfast buffet, Soller has many good panatterias, particularly in the streets around the Placa Constitutio.

 

Follow the stars to Deia

Walking left along the waterfront of Port Soller and looking out for walking signposts for Deia we were soon climbing up to join the Cami de Castello. This ancient pathway hovers between the mountains of the sea and enjoys views of both. Look out for the 13th-century Posada del Rei Jaume I and the picturesque settlement of Llucalcari.

The village of Deia sits on its hill, crowned by an ancient church and surrounded by its groves and irrigated crops. For many years it has been known as much for its literary and musical residents as for its beauty.

Poet and novelist Robert Graves settled here after the war and was visited by stars of stage and page. You can visit his house, which is now a museum, and his grave in the churchyard. More recently the presence of Richard Branson and friends have lent a different kind of glamour.

We were advised that the coastal walk from Port Soller to Deia is currently unstable and would recommend the higher pathway, which has wonderful views out to sea.

From Deia there is a regular bus service back to Soller and Port Soller (ask at your hotel for a timetable).

 

A day trip to Palma

You’ve got to expect some inclement weather on a walking holiday and Mallorca has plenty of options for wet weather days. Port Soller is only a 30 minute drive from the capital Palma but a much more charming way to get there is on the vintage train. The 27km narrow-gauge railway was originally built in 1912 to transport Soller’s famous oranges to market. It takes about an hour and passes through the mountains, as well as many typical old Mallorcan farms. In February these valleys are white with almond blossom.

Once you’re there don’t miss the cathedral – as made over by Antonio Gaudi – and the Arab Baths, the last Moorish building in Palma. This little city is not the sleepy place it once was and there are plenty of sophisticated options for eating, drinking and shopping.

For lunch we wandered into Simply Fosh, a new venture by Marc Fosh and based on his years of experience living and working here in Palma. He was first ever British Michelin star chef in Spain and his sleekly modern Mediterranean restaurant is, paradoxically, in the heart of an old convent building.

The food looks like a painter’s palette with intense colours but tastes infinitely better. The 18 euro menu del dia is fine dining in the middle of the day. Blackest cuttlefish risotto with saffron aioli and rocket. They also have a la carte at lunchtime, as well as in the evening.

 

Where to stay in Port Soller

After a good day’s walking in the hills we came back to the stylish but delightfully chilled atmosphere of Hotel Esplendido. This grand old 1950s lady of the waterfront underwent a complete refurbishment by the new, Swedish, owners in 2004. It certainly reflects its name, retaining some beautiful 50s period features while inspired modern design ensures everything works perfectly.

In fact if there weren’t so many wonderful outdoors activities on the doorstep it would be tempting to spend a lot of your holiday in the hotel. There are two swimming pools, including an infinity pool with views out across the harbour. There’s a lounge with computers, a library with a large vinyl collection, and an extensive library of films and music available in your room.

But I’m tempted to say the best thing was the breakfast. With a huge selection of favourites from home and Mallorcan fare and maybe even your favourite newspaper, this is hard to beat for a good start to the day.

I could have sat on our balcony for hours, watching the fishing boats, swarmed by gulls, returning between the two headland lighthouses (another walk). The little antique tram regularly putters along the waterfront, conductor hanging off the back and waving to my daughter sitting on my knee.

 

Natasha von Geldern

More information on walking holidays in Mallorca:

The Hotel Esplendido offers double rooms from 150 per night including breakfast and tax.

Tramuntana Tours is also on the waterfront and offers guided walks, mountain biking, kayaking and good advice about walking in Mallorca.

Eating out in Port Soller

Try Ribes, an unassuming restaurant perched above the marina with good portions of local fare including bacalau, sardines and delicious lamb (C/Santa Catalina 22, Port de Soller Tel +34 971 63 84 93).

Down nearer to the shiny yachts, El Pirate serves up a wide selection of delicious Mediterranean food with good service and it’s nice to sit outside.

Hotel Esplendido has a fine bistro with the same high standards apparent throughout the hotel.

And just a few doors from Esplendido, Los Olas has the best paella in town – make sure to book in the weekend.