Sunday, September 24, 2023

City Break - Esslingen

Esslingen, Germany. Friday/Monday, 22/25-September-2023.

We had a fantastic weekend in Esslingen near Stuttgart, a part of Germany that we knew nothing about. With huge thanks to Markus and Manuela for inspiring us to visit the area and giving up their time to act as great local guides.

We first met Markus and Manuela when they came to Salento parkrun whilst on holiday in Puglia. Markus is one of the Run Directors for Neckarufer, Esslingen parkrun and was encouraging people to visit. 

Mary had got out her spreadsheet earlier in the year and worked out a plan whereby we could complete our parkrun alphabet challenge (doing a parkrun starting with each letter of the alphabet, except X) plus Mary's 50th different parkrun location and Jetsetter (parkruns in five countries) all at the same time at Neckarufer!

In parkrun circles visiting 100 different locations is known as a Cowell (after the first person to complete the feat) and 50 events is a half Cowell (or Cow). Before the start Markus and Manuela presented Mary with appropriate bovine headband, and as you can see she already had the alphabet leggings.

After parkrun and breakfast with the locals at a nearby cafe it was back to the apartment for a shower and then some normal touristing with Markus and Manuela. The old town of Esslingen has many beautiful buildings, all so well preserved.

Apparently buildings were taxed on their floor area at ground level so each of the higher floors were built a bit bigger.

There is a huge long staircase that runs above the vineyards up to a mansion at the top and a view point. We, of course, had to climb all the stairs to the top of this hill.

View from the top looking over the vineyards to the Swabian Alps on the horizon.

Selfie at the top. This lovely tower had been used as a restaurant / venue but it is sadly currently vacant.

Back in the town, we had stopped for a beer when the furries arrived! We think they were there as general jollity as part of the cultural activities that were going on that weekend.

More furries! They seemed to be having fun and entertaining the children at the same time.

The river Neckar and its many tributaries and canals wind through the old town. This was one of the most decorated bridges with the imposing towers of the Stadtkirch in the background.

Ealry Sunday morning we visited the Stadtkirch which was simple without much in the way of decoration.

The organist was rehearsing early Sunday morning, possibly for a recital that was scheduled for that afternoon, so we sat for a while and got a free organ recital.

Our hosts took us to Tiefenhöhle, a fantastic set of bat caves where you go down and down very steep stairs. At the lowest point for visitors we were 40m underground although the cave continues at least another 40m below

There were regular information points with audio guides in different languages explaining the origin of the caves, the story of their discovery and what we were looking at geologically speaking.

After the caves we went Blautopf a local beauty spot where the water from the caves runs off into this blue pool and the start point for our walk.

The idyllic setting of the blue pool.

Our hosts then took us on a hike through gorgeous woodland paths to a hill top rock, a castle and a grotto. Mary's earworm at this point was 🎵 Where you lead, I will follow 🎵.

The path was mostly gently upwards through delightful deciduous woodland. My favourite kind of countryside.

It was a bit of a scramble but we just had to go right to the top of the rock.

View of Hohengerhausen castle from the rock. It looked pretty impregnable with very steep cliffs on most sides.

The views from the top of the castle were impressive.

Back down at valley level the last section back to the pool was alongside a stream with crystal clear water. Looking back up to the castle it made me realise quite how high up we'd been.

We look forward to returning the favour and acting as local guides for Markus and Manuela in the Lake District sometime.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Cammino del Salento retrospective

Cisternino, Puglia, Italy. Thursday, 21-September-2023.

Recap: We chose to do the Cammino del Salento as a substitute for our planned Ligurian Via del Sale which we have postponed to next May due to it being very challenging and the summer heat in Puglia not being conducive to training. In retrospect this was not the ideal time to do the Cammino del Salento either: 30 degrees is fine for relaxing, not so much for walking long distances and climbing hills. 

The coastline scenery was stunning, the country lanes and villages were mostly delightful but there was a fair proportion of scrub land, brown and devoid of flowers. When we came across any flowers they were a colourful delight and we occasionally found figs to scrump. In retrospect, spring might have been a better time to do this walk. Also we are already familiar with olive groves, fig trees and local countryside so they did not have the same impact on us as they would have on a newbie to the area. 

For the first part of the walk there are two options: the Via del Mare which heads due east from Lecce and then goes south along the coast or the Via Del Borghi which takes the inland route and takes a day longer. The two routes join up at Otranto and continue together to Santa Maria di Leuca. Due to time constraints we chose the Via del Mare. 

Some photo highlights: 

Spotting the little orange circles and arrows was a key pastime. Even with GPX route in the Komoot app it was always good to have visual confirmation that we were on the right track.

Castles and towers were a significant feature. The whole of the Italian Adriatic coastline is dotted with dozens of defensive towers from more turbulent times.

The costal scenery was stunning with spectacular cliffs, bays and azure seas.

Passing through hill-top towns and ports means lots of ups and downs. All along the route the path did not stick strictly to the coast partly because of the terrain and partly, we think, to take us through cute villages.

This photo, captured by a local, shows us ready for the final section on the fifth and final day.

We thought we were very nearly at the end but then discovered that we had to walk up 286 steps to reach the official end point. We really did not appreciate the killer steps!

Another friendly Italian took great care to get the composition of this photo just right in front of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae - the "end of the earth" where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea.

I should point out the t-shirt which is my answer to "So, Mark, why are you walking 24km a day in the blazing sunshine for five days including your birthday?"

All that said, we are glad we did it and are looking forward to the Via del Sale next year, with lots of training over the winter and spring.

I should also credit the team at Cammino del Salento who organised the trail, booked all our accommodation and arranged for our bags to be transferred from hotel to hotel. That literally took a huge weight off our shoulders!

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Cammino del Salento, Day 5 (of 5). Marina Serra to Santa Maria di Leuca (22 km)

Marina Serra to Santa Maria di Leuca, Puglia, Italy. Wednesday, 20-September-2023.

My birthday "treat" - another day of yomping six hours in the blazing heat!

Today's elevation profile showed steep climbs just after breakfast and after lunch.

We knew the first part was going to be hard work. The path went up and up and up and towards the end of the climb they added in some stairs just to finish us off. Fortunately the rest of the morning stretch was mostly level with a hint of downhill. 

Passing through Gagliano del Capo we came upon a full set of gnomes: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And we thought Italians had taste!

After a picnic lunch at Ponte Ciolo and a soft drink at bar L'Incanto we had another climb up to the top ridge via a mixture of steps and paths. The bridge itself was closed so we had to follow alternative footpaths; fortunately the digital map showed all the footpaths and we were soon back on track.

After so much barren landscape the smell of these flowers was gorgeous.

The route then took us inland for a while through Salignano where Mary loved the leaf design of the railings on this house.

We also like the fancy street signs in Salignano, useful places for the vital Cammino stickers.

From there it was just over an hour's walk to our destination Santa Maria di Leuca. The very last stretch was a killer, up 286 steps to reach the official end point at the top of a promontory. 

At the top we got a view over Santa Maria de Leuca and an opportunity to catch our breath after all those steps.

Victory photo thanks to a kind stranger to took great care to compose the shot. 

Then off to the Caffè de Finibus Terrae for our last stamp. Achievement Unlocked!

Whilst there it was definitely worth a celebratory Prosecco. Cheers!

Distance: 22.19 km, Time: 5:59 hr. Steps: 29,500.

We stayed at the hotel Rizieri down near the port. Luana, Nadia and Luana's daughter very kindly drove our car in convoy down from Lecce so it would be there ready for a fast getaway the next morning.

Pre-dinner drinks followed by a lovely birthday meal at Ristorante Santa Maria.

Five days of hills and steps. A grand total of Distance: 141 km, Walking Time: 28:58 hr, Steps: 193,000.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Cammino del Salento, Day 4 (of 5). Santa Cesarea Terme to Marina Serra (23.5 km).

Santa Cesarea Terme to Marina Serra, Puglia, Italy. Tuesday 19-September-2023.

The weather forecast was for a hotter day so we made an early start from Santa Cesarea Terme to make most of the morning cool.

Our target was breakfast at Castro near the castello. We know Castro because we have friends with an apartment there. We got there in about 1½ hr and had a breakfast at their local cafe. We also got the cafe to make us up a couple of rolls as we were expecting to be in the middle of nowhere at lunchtime.

The first stamp was due from the castello however it was not yet open so the cafe did the honours with what looks like their VAT stamp.

More beautiful coastline - well it is the via del mare route! In fact not all our time was spent on the coast as many times the route meandered inland and back out again.

We were amused by this decorated stump of a tree. A bottle tree?

Campanula type plant growing out of bedrock. Given the late summer dryness we didn't see too much in the way of flowers so these were a splash of loveliness.

After nearly 20km this steep downhill to our lunch stop was hard. There was a cafe / supermarket so we bought some drinks and discreetly ate our rolls.

We had allowed time for an extended lunch break so there was time for for Mary to have a swim at Porto Tricase.

When you don't have a swimsuit, swim in leggings and sports bra and dry off in the sun.

On the way out of town somebody went to some effort to make this sign. "Slow down. Danger. Kittens." There must be a story there.

Distance: 23.55 km, Walking Time: 5:38 hr, Steps: 33,000 again. We are very consistent.

From one extreme to the other. After the elegant Villa Raffaella this night's accommodation was the perfectly homely B&B Rifugio dei Lavaturi. Hot shower, comfy bed and a fridge for our water.

Marina Serra is a bit of a one-horse town. There was only one bar / pizza restaurant open so that made our choice for us. Expectations were modest but it turned out to be excellent. Beer is beer but they had a reasonable selection and the pizza was really good with a lactose free mozzarella for Mary.