Saturday, 6 September 2014

City of bikes (yes you, Copenhagen)

Earlier this northern summer I had an overnight stopover in Denmark’s capital, to break up the train journey from Switzerland to Norway, and was overwhelmed by its bike-friendliness. I mean, everyone knows this is THE bike city, but I hadn't realised just how bike-centric it is until I spent 24 hours there.

Bikes catch trains here
In Copenhagen, it’s easy to believe we became bipedal to, er, pedal, not walk upright. 

Everyone rides bikes in the Danish capital, which has a whopping 400km of bike lanes. I saw people of all ages on bicycles of all shapes and sizes (parents on "pram" bikes, removalists on "cargo" bikes), girls in skirts with their cardigan wings flapping, shirtless young men (long live summer), businessfolk in suits (more than half of all Copenhageners commute to work by bike). Princess Mary probably has a royal bike.

No boom gates, no tickets
at this (bike) parking station
It's hard to imagine why we ever drove cars, in such a bike utopia. 

There are bike-only bridges. Bike parking stations. Double-decker bike racks. Garbage bins angled towards cyclists so they can toss things in as they ride by (how cool is that?). Green LEDs on bike paths that light up when you ride at 20kph, fast enough to make all the green (bike) traffic lights. 

Electric share-bikes with GPS
units - only in Copenhagen
As in other European cities, there's a bike-share scheme, of course, but Copenhagen's (called Bycyklen) has 2000 (!) electric "smart bikes" with GPS units, built-in lights and puncture-free tyres (and the cost is a very tourist-friendly 25 kroner, of $4, an hour).

I also saw the newly opened (in June) Cykelslangen ("Cycle Snake"), a bright orange, 220-metre elevated bike path that allows cyclists to ride over a harbourside area where pedestrians like to saunter. (It's also becoming a popular spot for youths to dive off into the water, see below.)

This is one cool, two-wheeled city. Here's a neat video clip from Treehugger.com about Copenhagen's bike-friendly present and future.

Five more delightful things about Copenhagen:

I can fly! The new elevated
bike-path-diving-board
1. You can swim in the harbour – I saw this in Oslo, too, people getting their annual dose of vitamin D right in the heart of the city, on open patches of grass, on jetties, and just diving into the harbour (or the free harbour pool) to cool off. I would have joined them if I hadn’t left my swimmers in my luggage in a locker at the station (epic fail), but I did swim in Oslo (twice!) and the water was surprisingly warm. 

2. It has Europe’s largest hostel, Copenhagen City Hostel, a 5-star, 14-storey design hostel in a harbourside building (the tallest in Denmark until 1958) on Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard (where else?). I slept in one of its 1020 beds, on the 11th floor and had a great view over the city for about $49 (265 kroner; Copenhagen may be bike-friendly but it ain't cheap). 

3. You can juice birch trees here – well, not personally, but in Copenhagen you can buy SealandBirk organic birch tree juice. Tastes sweet, and is full of antioxidants and vitamins, apparently.

Virtual tourism info
4. It has virtual tourist information booths. The tourism information centre was trialling these at Copenhagen’s central station when I was there in July. Needing a city map, I walked in, pressed the touchscreen and skyped with a friendly, real person in the tourist info centre a few blocks away.

Summer cycling: one of
Copenhagen's bike overpasses
5. Is it just me or do Danish people, on the whole, look incredibly healthy? Everyone I saw was rosy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed, shiny-haired. Maybe it's because they ride bikes everywhere.

Copenhagen has plans to become the "world's best bicycle city" by the end of 2015, but to my mind it's already there...


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The wonderful world(s) of Europe

One of the joys of travelling is being affected by places, having your world view turned inside out, your misconceptions "corrected". I've had my mind changed, and opened, a few times while travelling around Europe these past few months. 

Beautiful, coastal Portugal
For one thing, coming from Australia, I've always thought of Europe as relatively small, and overpopulated. But Europe is bigger, wilder and more blue-skied than I'd remembered it to be. 

I realised my mistake as soon as I started zigzagging from one side of the continent to the other (which cost a small fortune, in different currencies – more on that below): from Germany down to Portugal, over to Croatia, up to Norway (I spent a day and a night on the train travelling north of Oslo, for instance, and still didn't reach the northern tip of the country).

I've learned that much of Europe is uninhabited, or barely inhabited, if you look in the right places. That there are wild landscapes all over the continent: beaches and islands, canyons and mountains. I surfed in Portugal, went sea kayaking in Croatia, hiking in Switzerland and hardly saw another soul.

Good question...
But the main thing I've learned is this: there's more than one Europe. Which can make travelling there tricky, particularly for non-Europeans. Let me explain...

There’s Europe the continent, a land mass that extends north of the Mediterranean Sea to Nordkapp in Norway (mainland Europe's most northerly point) and from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, and includes islands such as Iceland and the United Kingdom. 

There’s the European Union (EU) consisting of 28 countries, though some European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, aren’t in the EU, and others are in the process of applying for membership such as Serbia and Turkey.

Bear Grylls on
the walls of Zagreb
There’s the Eurozone, made up of 18 EU countries that use the euro. So not every country in the EU uses the euro. The UK is the obvious exception, but Croatia, the EU's newest member (as of 2013), still uses the kuna. Then there are micro-countries that use the euro, such as Monaco and the Vatican City. 

Then there's Schengen Europe. Um, what? I'd never heard of it either. The Schengen Area comprises 26 European (EU and non-EU) countries that signed the Schengen Agreement (in Schengen, Luxembourg) in 1995 to abolish border checks between them. 

What Schengen means for non-European travellers: we can travel in and between any of the Schengen countries without passport checks, and stay in the Schengen zone for up to 90 days within a 180-day period (to stay longer, in other words, you have to leave Schengen Europe for 90 days and re-enter). 

Portugal for sale
The trap for new players is that some European countries (such as Croatia), even some countries in the EU (such as Ireland), aren’t in the Schengen zone, while some non-EU countries (such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) are.

Finally, there's "Europe" as defined by Eurail - a Eurail pass is valid in 24 European countries, which is pretty much all of Europe (including non-EU countries like Turkey) except the UK, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and Iceland.

Some European countries  like Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium – make life easy for everyone by being in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen (and within Eurail Europe).

Other European countries make travel akin to code-breaking (in a good way!). 

To illustrate: In three months in "Europe" I visited 11 countries (eight EU, three non-EU countries), went in and out of the Schengen zone a few times and used eight (!) currencies:
  • Portugal – which is in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen Europe
  • Croatia – in the EU but not Schengen and doesn’t use the euro; the kuna was my first non-euro currency. Because I spent 16 days in Croatia, my 90 days in Schengen stretched to 106 days in Europe, which was an unexpected bonus...
  • Switzerland – proudly, defiantly not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (enter my second currency, the Swiss franc) but is in Schengen
  • Denmark and Sweden – both in the EU and Schengen, but don't use the euro (they use Danish and Swedish kroner)
  • Norway – not in the EU and doesn’t use the euro (why can’t all Scandinavian countries at least use the same kroner?) but is in Schengen
  • Germany – another “normal” European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses the euro. Bless Deutschland
  • Hungary – in the EU and Schengen but doesn't use the euro (I had to buy forints for a too-brief river cruise stopover in Budapest)
  • Serbia – not in the EU (yet), the Eurozone (they use the dinar) or Schengen 
  • Slovakia – in the EU, the Eurozone and Schengen
  • Austria – another "truly" European nation: in the EU, in Schengen, uses euros.
The good news is that every country in Europe drives on the right, and uses the same two-pin electrical plug :-) 

The moral of the story: Before you travel in Europe and buy your euros or a Eurail pass, check the status of your destination. Then dive headlong into the wonderful world(s) of Europe.

(Big thanks to Etihad Airways, my new favourite airline, who flew me in style to Dusseldorf and back to Sydney, and Rail Plus, for the wonderful 2-month Eurail pass.)



Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The best things in life are free - even in Switzerland

Two and a half weeks housesitting for a friend who lives in a ski village in French Switzerland – how could I say “non”? This is a part of the world that knows how to turn up the dial on mountain landscapes. The weather wasn't all blue skies – only six of my 18 days in Villars-sur-Ollon (near Montreux) were sunny – but when the sun does shine, man, you need a couple of rainy, misty days to recover from the scenic splendour. 

Scenic splendour - from
the deck of the house
The challenge: How to live simply in one of the most expensive countries in Europe and in a mountain town that has TWO of the most expensive schools in the world (Beau Soleil and Aiglon College).

The outcome? It turns out that even in Switzerland, in summer, the best things in life are free, such as:

1. Getting around, if you ride bikes and walk, instead of driving. (The family I was housesitting for have a Tesla electric car, which is ridiculously cheap to run, but since I would be driving on the wrong side of the winding mountain roads, I decided to leave it in the garage, plugged in.) The bonus with walking is that you get to see the details in your surroundings: geraniums in window boxes, heart cut-outs in the wooden verandahs, piles of chopped wood waiting for winter...

Walk this way...
2. Hiking. Even getting up into the mountains is inexpensive, thanks to the Villars-Gryon Free Access Card, valid May-October. Although it's technically "free" only in name, for 10 Swiss francs (about $12), you can use any bus, train or gondola in the area for a whole day. Fifty francs ($60) buys you free transport for the whole summer.

The mountain I woke up to
every morning
3. Looking at mountains. Even after a week of constantly stopping to look at 3000-metre peaks in every direction, I still couldn't wait to open the curtains each morning to see them again. What would they be like today? Is there fresh snow from last night's rain? I started to wonder how people who live here get anything done. How do they not get so distracted by alpine beauty that they forget their jobs, their errands, their children's names? I still don't know.


No such thing as a free lunch?
This comes pretty close...
4. Eating in, and out. This being French Switzerland, the food was a highlight (and probably the main reason my friend Janet flew all the way across the US and the Atlantic to housesit with me...). It was also surprisingly affordable. Lunch was always "the best picnic ever": a fresh and crusty baguette, at least two kinds of cheese, an avocado and some nuts (for some non-dairy nutrition), and a block of Cailler dark chocolate, served on a makeshift tablecloth (in this pic, some red checked paper napkins).

For other meals we cooked instead of eating out (the advantage of having a kitchen) and spent almost as long in the chocolate aisle as in the whole rest of the supermarket. And still we'd always make sure we had a few francs leftover for pains au chocolat from the boulangerie. It was like being in Paris - with clean air and mountain views.

5. Swimming in Lake Geneva (once you've paid the train fare to Montreux). This was another highlight of our stay (even though we had to swim in our underwear, because it had been raining and cold when we'd left the mountains and we hadn’t expected Montreux to be sunny and 22 degrees C and the lake so irresistible). Sometimes the best things in life are spontaneous too. 


Up to my neck in Lake Geneva
Not only that but we swam right next to Chateau de Chillon, an incredible 12th century castle right on the lake, just after watching a ballet company rehearsing for that evening's performance, for the price of admission, a mere 12 francs. Oh, Switzerland, how do you do it?

6. Doing nothing. One of the best ways to save money is to do nothing. Well, nothing more than reading in the sun on the deck, playing badminton on the lawn, talking over cups of tea...

A posy of wildflowers
7. The kindness of strangers. One day we caught a bus (using the Free Access Card) to Solalex, a glacial cul de sac at the foot of an enormous slab of rock called the Miroir d'Argentine. We'd just been tandem paragliding for the first time (which isn't free, of course, but was much cheaper than back home, go figure) and were celebrating with a couple of Boxer beers (who knew the Swiss made beer?) at Le Restaurant du Miroir d'Argentine, when the aproned waiter came over and offered us two slices of peach flan and some freshly whipped cream, as they were about to close. This is what I love about travelling. Kindness, and dessert, when you least expect it.

8. Speaking French. Practising my schoolgirl French – priceless. Attempting to speak another language in a country that speaks it all around you is a little-known form of entertainment, and not just for the locals (!). I love places where you can live simply but still have another language and culture to keep things interesting. 

Freshly picked strawberries
 9. Summerberries. I learned a new appreciation for summer by picking strawberries in the garden of the house where we were staying - so precious when you know the ground will soon covered in snow. We also met hikers picking wild strawberries beside the trail.

10. Friends. Having friends in high (as in altitude) places makes even the most expensive destinations affordable (big thanks to Keith and Yvette for opening up your home to us while you were away). But even when you don't know anyone where you're going, there are other ways to housesit, like Trustedhousesitters, which has assignments all over the world and you usually stay for free in exchange for looking after the owners' house, garden and/or animal friends.

Got any tips for travelling on a budget in expensive countries? 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Yoga, surfing and the "vida simples" (simple life) in Portugal

You can do a lot of living in seven days, in Portugal – without dancing ‘til dawn in a Lisbon nightclub. I’m talking about a simpler, unplugged kind of living. One endless summer's day after another. 

Tipi heaven, the western Algarve
And a couple of weeks ago I found just the place to try it, if only for a week (for starters): Tipi Valley, a surf-and-yoga camp on Portugal's rugged Atlantic coast.

Europe's most unspoilt coast
This part of Portugal, the western Algarve (about 20km from the south-western tip of Europe and four hours by bus south of Lisbon), is about as far from the popular notion of "Europe in summer" as you can get without leaving the continent. (That's a good thing.)

Rock fishing, Algarve-style
Here, land meets sea at pristine beaches flanked by dramatic cliffs, and fishermen perch 30 metres above the crashing Atlantic, hoping for a bite that won't pull them to their deaths. The only signs of man are a few snaking coastal roads and cobble-streeted villages nestled in lush valleys (many of their terracotta-tile roofs sporting solar panels, a new decree).

Track markers on a tree
Oh, and a new 110-kilometre walking trail, the Rota Vicentina (opened in 2013), along what The Guardian calls “the wildest, most unspoilt coastline in southern Europe” in Southwest Alentijo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park. (I day-walked part of it before arriving at Tipi Valley and found a paradise of wildflowers - see the pics here). 

Why the teepees? 
The camp is the accidental dream of Laurie Quirk, an Australian surfer I met when we were both living in Japan 20 years ago (which is how I came to stay at Tipi Valley). 

A nomad by nature, he was lured to this part of Portugal by the promise of perfect, uncrowded waves 10 years ago, found some land (six hectares) in a peaceful valley near the historic town of Aljezur (we saw a man in a donkey-drawn cart in the main street one afternoon), bought a teepee "made in the Netherlands from a Belgian guy living in a German fire truck" and dived headfirst into a simple, natural life - surfing, doing yoga, growing his own organic vegetables. 

The big teepee, by night
One night, Laurie was sitting around a campfire with a few mates when one of them said, "You know, a lot of people would love to come and live like this for a week: to surf (or learn how to), do yoga, live simply in a natural place." So Tipi Valley was born - authentically, out of Laurie's own life. 

Simple + sustainable
Eight years on, Tipi Valley remains faithful to its simple roots. It's small, accommodating up to 12 guests at a time (there were only six of us the week I was there). It's off-the-grid: there's no mains electricity or town water, no mobile reception or wifi. There's solar electricity, water from a well, bottled gas for cooking. (And no need for a generator, so the camp is blissfully quiet at night, but for the rumble of the surf). 

My bamboo-and-canvas tent
It's rustic, but not rough. There are comfortable beds with mosquito nets in every teepee/tent. Posies of wildflowers in glass jars. Locally sourced bamboo-walled bathrooms (with solar hot showers) open to the sky and the stars. The Moroccan Lounge communal tent has couches, books and a hamper of blankets for cool nights.

Shivasana under the cork trees
There's a beautifully simple yoga space: a hessian-covered padded floor (yoga mats are provided too) shaded by native cork trees, with views past the big teepee down the valley.

The camp is also open only half the year (May-October). People would come at other times, Laurie says, particularly to escape the northern European winter, but in keeping with Tipi Valley's low-impact ethos, he and his staff remove all trace of it at the end of each summer to let the land rest between seasons. 

Off to surf school...
Yoga, surfing and Portugese tarts
Our days tumbled into an easy routine. After morning yoga and breakfast, David from Odeceixe Surf School would pick us up in his lime-green, ex-Portugese army jeep to take us to one of three local beaches: Odeceixe, Monte Clerigo or Amoreira. 

Pastel de nata (mmm)
I'd surf while the others had a two-hour lesson, then we'd all hang out on the beach, swim (in the freezing Atlantic! We wore 4/3 wetsuits when surfing) and treat ourselves to post-surf pasteis de nata (Portugese for baked deliciousness) or Sagres beer. 

(As yoga retreats go, it was pleasantly relaxed in relation to sugar, caffeine and alcohol: we even had a bottle of local wine with dinner one night.) 

Back at camp, there'd be time for showers before the evening yoga session, then dinner, made from ingredients gathered from the garden or local fish and produce from Aljezur's market. 

Portugal is a surfers' paradise
Beautiful beaches
A couple of mornings, Laurie picked me up in his ute (he lives in a passive-solar house he built on the property) for an early surf before breakfast. 

One spot, a right-hander at the end of a steep and deeply rutted dirt road, looked lost in time. No one around, the undeveloped coastline stretching north and south as far as we could see. "It's like Rincon [a now-famous break in southern California] in the '60s," Laurie said, half-joking. We surfed it by ourselves for an hour, then drove to the nearest village to warm up with espressos and freshly baked pasteis de nata. A mini surf trip, Portugese-style.

Casa Verde, Monte Clerigo beach
On our last day, we all surfed at Monte Clerigo, my favourite beach of the trip for its pastel-coloured houses, the little cafe/bar with tables and chairs right on the sand and the headland walk from where you can look down at rock pools and the turquoise sea. (Who knew the Atlantic could look like this? Not me.)

I even found my next European summerhouse (maybe): right on the beach, with a hand-painted "for rent" sign and a very No Impact Girl name on the gate: Casa Verde ("green house").

Dinner light
A week of "getting back to it all"
Tipi Valley is a special place: where life slows down, a week feels like a month and everything you do is simple, natural goodness for body, heart and soul (yes, even the daily pasteis de nata!).

You eat all your meals outdoors, forget to wear shoes and tune in to daily miracles like the waves falling over each other onto the shore and nature's ever-changing light show, presented by our ever-generous sponsor, the sun.

Beach yoga with new friends
Liberated from our devices, away from news and emails, we interacted only with the people we could speak to, face to face (in my case, five beautiful, like-minded women from the UK, New York and the Netherlands). Isn't that always the way, only we just need reminding now and then? Disconnecting from the wider world, we reconnect with those around us, and to the day's rhythms, and our own.

Yoga + surfing = happy
Pic by Becky Westcott
It's just as Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis (1945-1996) said, years ago: "When you go out there [to the wilderness], you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself." 

Thanks, Tipi Valley, for a week that will stay with me for a long time, until I find my way back to you... 

More info: Tipi Valley runs all-inclusive, fun and healthy (for body, heart and soul) 5-day and 7-day surf-and-yoga programs between May and October from 595. See surfalgarve.com