Normandy – On the Coast

Belgian national holiday was approaching, which meant an extra long weekend for us. We were looking eagerly towards the Alps. Liechtenstein was getting our noses tingling. A small country which we could cross on foot, with the most magnificent mountains and castles; perfection.

Well, on Wednesday we found ourselves heading west. No mountains, there was a massive rain storm over them, instead a beautiful seaside in Normandy. We had visited the area mast year in April, then we had found it extremely beautiful, thus worth revisiting. Hopefully the different season would give it a new face, too.

It was late in the evening when we arrived at a spot we had camped also last year. It is a cliff over a beach, right next to a lighthouse close to the city of Étretat. Oh that spot, I like it so much. I used to think, I am not much of a sea side person, but that place might have turned me into one. It is the sounds, mainly. How the waves roll over the pebbly rocks on the beach and resonate on the tall cliffs. And the seagulls flying over and screaming. Can’t do much but love it.

There we slept the first night, before heading further west to the Hague peninsula. The plan was to leave our car somewhere in the western coast, take a taxi to the east and walk back along the coast, where there is the GR 223 trail, Tour de la Hague. Eventually we left our car in a little sleepy village of Biville and took the direction to Urville-Nacqueville (still can’t pronounce that) and started our hike. It would be around 50 kilometers of walking in total. It was past 4 in the afternoon when we hit the trail. The walk started on a quiet beach, barely nobody there and soon climbed up to the green cliffs that Normandy is so famous for.

It was soft going, but Waffle was struggling with a flu, so we had to cut the evening short. We dropped off the cliffs on to more flat grounds as we made our way towards the western tip of the Cap de la Hague. Behind a corner there appeared a paradise. An island, just a short distance away from the shore. It was low tide and we were hoping that the small piece of grassy land would be accessible.

As we approached we saw it, a narrow passage of rocks, dry and leading directly to the island. It was perfect. Smooth, even and covered in soft grass. I was more than happy to let my backpack drop and settle down for the evening. Waffle seemed exhausted too, almost falling off of his feet. Still refusing to let me put up the camp. That bloody man.

Tent was up, food was brewing and we had a pretty great sunset on our backs. That must have been one of our more beautiful camping spots so far. The sea soon surrounded us as the tide came in. It had been full moon, so we were a little worried how high the sea would eventually come. Well, there was no way out anymore, so all we could do, was to wait.

It had been a very comfortable night and I crawled out feeling rather fresh. It looked like it was going to be a very beautiful day. Waffle was feeling terrible and we had a heavy day ahead of us. It was going to be hot, and we would have to walk over 20 km.

We took off, just at the last minute when the morning tide was coming up trying to cut off our way from the island. A few minutes and the passage was under water. We headed on, towards the western point of the peninsula. We passed so very beautiful, white sanded, hidden beaches on the go. The sea was calling us to take a dip, but that is not something you really want to do, while hiking. Swim in the sea and then be sticky with the salt for a couple of days. That temptation still was there though.

There was a small touristic concentration around the Goury, with a beautiful view to the lighthouse. We had some local apple juice and ice cream, perfect treat for the hot hiking day. We had to walk to inland, to the close by village to top off our water reserves.

The villages of Normandy. They would deserve a chapter of their own. They are tiny, and cute. With amazing views to the sea at every corner. There are small farms all over and those country roads are narrow and cornery and deadly, but oh so pretty. And fresh seafood is served just about everywhere, with apple cider.

Back to the coast we were. The heat was taking its toll on us both but still it was rather impossible to stop admiring the views we were walking through. The progress was slow, we had to pause all the time, once for a convenient beer, too.

After the beer there was some calmer nature ahead and we started to look for a spot to put our tent on. We test drove a field, were concerned about the possibility of an angry farmer appearing. So my tired knees had to still keep transporting me up and down the cliff side. That walk payed off. A kilometer or so further, we found an old horse paddock, hidden from the trail right at the edge of the cliff and a curious seagull as a bonus.

We enjoyed a very beautiful sunset, watching the colors of the seaside turn from blue and green to oranges and yellows. The sea on that side was somewhat less calm compared to the north-eastern side of the peninsula. The sound of the waves is so nice to fall a sleep with.

I had slept well, but I still was very tired in the morning. Waffle seemed to have shed off the flu, miraculously. The morning was misty. We couldn’t see the sea and the cliffs were only looming shadows. Soon the sun pushed the mist off, and the heat came again. It was only 10 kilometers left, but for me, that was definitely enough.

We crossed a huge beach and headed off towards a nature preserve with huge sand dunes. It had its own charm, with dozens of birds and hay covered sand piles with lagoons. We thought we were able to walk around the dunes, but we were wrong. The trail soon turned into loose sand and a steep climb up to a dune of 90 meters. Phuah, that was horrible.

Oh the happiness I felt when we finally saw the first houses of Biville. It couldn’t have come sooner. The car was boiling hot, so we went, again, for ice creams and cold drinks. We had to say goodbye to Normandy, since Monday was approaching.

 

There was still time to finally take a dive into the blue sea before getting a very traditional dinner with crepes and apple cider, not my favorite kitchen of France, but not too bad either.  For the last night we drove to Étretat again, to a cut the driving in a bit shorter junks. We arrived late, again and pitched our tent in falling darkness. In the morning we had a slow breakfast on the cliff.

During our last visit we had found a goat farm in Étretat, called Valaine. They make chocolate and ice cream out of goats milk and those are just fabulous. We squeezed in a visit to there for the early afternoon and got our fix of those goodies again. The taste of the chocolate is rather special, it is not too sweet and has a slightly sour taste from the milk. And the ice cream is perfectly fresh and light. I do recommend to pay them a visit if you are in the area, but do not touch the cider they make.

The sweet fix was done, and the final approach to Rupelmonde could began. We had a wonderful holiday. Amazing beauty around and some of the best bits France has to offer. For some reason I was not missing the Alps at all. Normandy has our hearts, and I hope we’ll be getting back there soon.

 

Advertisements

Finland, all by myself

I found myself packing again. Putting stuff together for a short trip to Finland. My dear friend Miia had organized a sauna evening for the bunch of girls we survived through the university studies with. That was enough for me to hunt down a plane and go. Waffle would be staying home. That felt odd. I was so excited to see the girls and everybody else and have a sauna and some Finnish nature but somewhat sad about Waffle leaving behind.

On a Thursday afternoon I turned the nose of my mighty Polo towards Leuven. The car would wait for me at the parking lot of Waffles office. On the go there, I had gotten a message saying that my flight is cancelled. As I tried to confirm the information, I noticed that the site of Finnair is down, too. Waffle came to rescue and after some calling and running around the airport I managed to get booked onto an earlier flight to Finland.

The flight reached Helsinki as the sun was setting. The train took me to Helsinki center in no time and soon I was finding my way to Espoo. It felt like home. I have never liked Helsinki as a city too much, but it was a home for me for so long. The familiarity of it is comforting and I like the calmness of the streets on a late evening.

Miia took me in with a warm squeeze, it had been too long since we last saw each other. She would be hosting me for a couple of nights. After some babbling and an evening snack I was tired enough to just fall over in the bed.

The next day I spent visiting some family members, my great aunt and her daughter. I enjoy those visits when ever I have time for them. Kaisa, the great aunt has that wisdom elderly people so often have. She still likes to share it, even though her thoughts might not run as fast as before. Her daughter is good company too, and we spent hours discussing the ways of the world.

It was time for a quick lunch in the central Helsinki with Miia and a short visit in the city museum. Helsinki city museum is located in the lovely surroundings of the Senaatin tori and free to visit. Now there is an  exhibition of how life has been in Helsinki through the years and how the city has changed. There also is an exhibition of broken relationships, featuring items that tell stories of relationships coming to an end. Something worth visiting, I would say. Miia writes of it here in a much heartier manner.

We started to prepare for the evening of some sauna and food with the girls.We chose to have some smoked salmon and carrot cake, sided with a nice bottle of wine.  This would be a payback for Copenhagen, my birthday surprise. We hadn’t told to the rest of the girls that I was in Finland too! That was difficult a secret to keep. I am usually the irritating person who shouts it all over Facebook if anything special is going on.

The moment Kati opened the door and found me, her face was worth the silence. Seemed that it was a pleasant surprise. It turned out to be such a lovely evening with good food, drinks and loads of inappropriate humor. Just like in the old days, not much had changed, maybe we are a little bit wiser now, calmer, maybe and in stable relationships. But we still have the same misbehaving children inside of us who we seldom can let out in decent company. Sauna heated, food gone and drinks flowing we laughed, talked and irritated the cats until late in the evening, when Kati and Nelli had to go to their own places.

For Saturday I got woken up by a cat, carefully walking over me and talking about things cat talk about. I didn’t have much plans,  the weather was good, so with Miia we decided to go to the forest and see if it had some berries for us. Miia is living right next to one of the larger shopping centers in Espoo, but still you only need to walk about 20 minutes to get to a forest, where you hardly see people and traffic is only a distant noise. That is so nice about Finland. Nature is literally everywhere. The forest indeed had some wild bilberries for us and some chantarelles too! That brought me back to childhood. I used to be the mushroom picker of the family, spending whole summers in mushroom hunt. Berry picking is strangely meditative activity. You pick a berry, get to know him, eat him and pick another one. Feel them in your fingers and see the bottom of your bucket disappear under a blue pebbly surface.

In the evening it was time to continue towards Tampere. To meet the Armenians we have been hiking with a few times. They picked me up and off we went. Through the Finnish countryside with lush fields of oats and barley with the sun setting behind the forests. Felt homely.

I had some chantarelles with me and that we turned into an evening meal. Backed with onions and stacked onto a bread. A rye bread. We talked over our holidays past ones as well as future endeavors. They had been to Iceland while we were in Montenegro. I think we both were completely in love with those destinations. I hope we’ll be able to find a time for a hike together soon enough. Somewhere.

Ana and Yuri had planned a lovely Sunday. They took me to a strawberry farm, that had expanded into a farm of all sorts of berries and a petting zoo. That is something uniquely great about Finnish summer. The true real, flavorful strawberries that you won’t find anywhere else. Again I was taken back to the childhood summers while picking those goodies. The lake side view from the farm was also a big plus to the experience.

Since we were not even close to being tired after the berry picking session we needed some cycling. Around the Pyhäjärvi that was then. On the go we stopped a few times to pick berries and hunt down some more mushrooms. The area of Tampere and around Pyhäjärvi is just about as Finnish as a landscape can get. The lake is surrounded with forests and the lake is littered with islands. You could stop and stare that for hours, unless there is a berry and a mushroom yelling your name a short distance further.

There was yet another surprise waiting for me once we got back. My hosts had invited Zsuzsa, one of our common friends to join us, and skipped the telling to me part of it. What is wrong with people nowadays, not telling things like those to other people…

Well, it was a  perfect evening, good hearty BBQ dinner with again some wine and beer and good music. Even Waffle got to take part to it, via Skype. He had been having his own party the previous night. At the end of it all there was sauna for us and a lake. A little bit chilly lake, considering it is July. The feeling of dipping your sauna warm body into the cool water is extremely refreshing. If you could swim in mint pastilles, I guess it would feel about the same.

Well, all these good things, they come to an end. Zsuzsa went home and the rest of us prepared for a short night. I needed to be at the train station at 4:30 am to catch a train to the airport. I slept a total of 1 hour and got up again.

I was once more leaving Finland behind me. I had planned on sleeping a bit on the train, but that plan was dumped quickly. Traveling through such a landscape does not allow you to sleep. The sun was still just a hint in the horizon and the fields of gold and blue wrapped in cold, white mist. An explosion of golden light finally pierced the horizon as the sun hopped higher.

Oh I was tired in the plane. I was shifting from being awake to sleep and back again. I was a little sad to leave Finland after such a short trip, but was happy to get back home to Waffle. I had my Finnish goodies with me; some candy, chocolate and books, so at least a small part of the norther home was coming with me.

There was a warm buzz inside me when Waffle hopped out of his car and picked me up at the airport. I was home, the other home, there where my heart is now. We’ll see you soon again, Finland.

 

Eisleck trail in Belgium

Finally the beautiful summer arrived to Belgium. Momentarily at least. We had a short weekend hike planned in the Ardennes. We had our minds set on the Eisleck trail, or at least a short part of it. The plan was to follow it from Houffalize to Nadrin and camp at the bivak zones close to the trail.

On Friday everything was packed and we, Waffle, Waffle’s colleague and her son plus I, were heading down south with two cars. First car was dropped off in the small town of Nadrin and we continued with one towards Houffalize and our first camping spot.

The bivak zones are a great thing these Belgians have come up with. They offer room for tents and a fire place in a shelter and they are for free. Often times they also have water available too!  This one was close to Houffalize, on top of a hill, next to small field, there were other people too, enjoying their evening.

We quickly guided our friends to the secrets of erecting a tent, had dinner with some wine and watched the sunset. Even I managed to stay awake past 10 in the evening. That normally never happens if we are on a hike.

Saturday woke us up with warm sunshine and a nice choir of birds. We were looking at a hike of around 15 kilometers that day and the red wine was still lingering around me. Good thing we had some extra coffee with us to get things going.

Our convoy left towards the car again where we dropped off excess stuff before heading to Houffalize. There we did some shopping for cold drinks and something extra to nibble on on the trail, plus brand new scarves to cover the heads of the ladies once the last shower would be only a distant memory..

The trail took a short climb up from the valley where the village is and dived into a forest that surrounds the river Ourthe Orientale. It was a bridle way, a hikers highway, but still we mostly got to enjoy solitude. We passed through forests and fields and dropped down to the river, with rather pleasant picnic spots. Our original plan was to make it all the way to the bivak zone in Engreux, but we started to reconsider, since it would leave us only a minor distance to walk on the last day and that bivak was far away from the river.

The map showed us an area along the river with not too many places of civilization close by and we decided somewhat in unison to find our camping spot from there, a little bit off of the Eisleck trail. The unmarked path followed the riverside  for a while, climbing to higher grounds only slightly. Which was a good thing, since my knees were complaining again and some sings of tiredness began to emrge in the group. We were in luck! By the trail there was a smooth spot of mossy ground in an old spruce forest. Perfect for sleeping! Some old fire pits were there already and the river was close by, it was sold!

We popped the wine for the evening into the river to cool down a little, put up our tents and built a campfire. It is very handy to have a boy from the scouts with you, they will immediately attack the fire building duties. It was a relaxed evening, listening to the streaming of the water and birds in the trees. The soft evening light is so beautiful in a forest like that, giving a whole different nature to the shades of green.

The evening went by, we ate, talked, checked for the route for the following day (straightest trail to the car). The bathing in the river was also a refreshing experience; flowing water never really gets too warm. After that dive it was so nice to crawl in the tent and let the sleep take you to the next morning.

We had our breakfast and slowly got on our way.Soon the trail took us to some cliffs right at the river side. There the heavy rainfalls had loosened the soft ground and taken our trail to the river and replaced it with fallen trees. To get through that, we needed some improvisation. Waffle went ahead to find a safe route to get higher, on top of the cliffs, where we would hopefully be able to carry on without too much trouble. That plan worked, up until the next cliff, where we had to scramble again a little higher. We progressed slow and Waffle had to carry some extra weight too, to get the whole group through.

I think we were all more or less happy to finally find a trail that didn’t disappear into a muddy landslide after 20 meters.  It was smooth going once we found the Eisleck again and started to follow it towards Engreux and the Lake of Nisramont. On the go we even found some trees chewed by beavers!

The trail was very beautiful and it passed plenty of viewpoints, either to the river and the lake or to the beautiful Belgian countryside. Still I was happy, when a sign said that Nadrin was only 15 minutes away. In the village we sat in a cafe with less than friendly service, had beers and compared the amount of tick bites.

After that little rest, we packed ourselves into the car, drove back to the other car in Houffalize, found some more ticks and headed for our own separate ways.

I think I learned a thing or two on the way:

  1.  Waffle is an absolute hero. He keeps his calm, takes care of everybody, deserving or not, and makes things so much funnier and easier.
  2. I am a bloody lucky bastard to have a Waffle.
  3. You should always allow yourself to spend time with those people who you can be grateful for, and who are grateful for your company too. That will create positive energy and enjoying the beauty of things is so much better with them.
  4. Red wine doesn’t solve all the problems in the world. Not even with chocolate.

P.S. Sorry for the pictures. We noticed too late, that there was a smutch on the lense, now there is a smutch on all the pictures too.