Sestri Levante in Liguria in north-west Italy is a coastal town on the lyrically named Riviera di Levante. An especially lovely part of the town overlooks the curve of the Bay of Silence where moored yachts and work boats of a few fishermen add to the picture postcard seascape.
A relaxing way to reach this corner of Italy is to go by train. Two hours after leaving London St. Pancras you can be stepping down from a Eurostar onto a platform at Gare du Nord, Paris. An overnight stay, or even better, a few days exploring Paris might be a delightful option before continuing your journey.
From Gare du Nord it takes only a few minutes by Metro, the city’s extensive underground train system to reach Gare de Lyon and a train bound for Venice. On any train journey there may be a few anxious moments on boarding and getting settled but on this long distance train the seating is comfortable with plenty of leg room, individual reading lights and a table.
From Gare de Lyon, the train crosses an expanse of rural France where fields of flat farmland appear to stretch for miles before meeting distant uplands. Further south in Switzerland the train passes through tunnels and alongside lakes and grey green rivers. On the terraced slopes of nearby hillsides, precisely spaced rows of vines grow in every available space. In the background, jagged mountain peaks pierce the sky.
Our first stopover was in Geneva, Switzerland. When we arrived in the late afternoon it was already growing dark so we didn’t manage to see a whole lot of the city. But while exploring quiet streets near the Hotel Edelweiss where we stayed overnight, we came across a busy restaurant serving typical Swiss dishes including fondue and local wines. It proved to be a good choice.
From Geneva we travelled to Milan where we changed trains again, this time within the same station before heading to Sestri Levante.
In late autumn, at the end of the main tourist season, Sestri Levante is pleasantly quiet with a restrained air of confidence. The town offers a choice of stylish hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, upmarket shops and hard - to - resist gelaterias selling variously flavoured ice creams.
With one of those ice creams to hand, it’s a delight to join the passaggiata, the early evening procession, as dog walkers, pram pushers, strollers dressed to be seen and those on mobility scooters or in wheelchairs make their way slowly along Via Roma.
In the restaurants, fish and sea food dishes including lightly battered anchovies, sea bass, hake and octopus are some of the specialities on the menus. If pasta appeals there’s plenty of choice especially as Liguria is known for its varieties of pasta and for being the home of pesto sauce made with locally grown basil, believed to be particularly pungent and flavoursome due to the area’s combination of salty air and sunshine.
While some visitors may not stray far from the beach loungers placed a few metres away from the gently breaking waves of the Bay of Silence, thousands of others head further south to the Cinque Terre, to explore the five colourful villages - Monterrosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore that sit dramatically on cliffs above the deep blue sea.
Not so long ago, these villages were emptying. Young people were moving out in search of further education and employment opportunities but now year round tourism keeps each village busy. They can be reached by road though a less stressful option might be to arrive aboard one of the ferry boats which leave from Sestri Levante and from other towns further down the coast.
Walking the coastal path between the villages is popular and though guide books suggest the14km will take between 2.5 and 5 hours, it is a strenuous walk in places and for many people of a certain age would not be a mere stroll in the park.
The Cinque Terre was hit by a flash flood on 25th October 2011which caused a lot of damage. In mid-October 2017, the coastal path was closed between, Riomaggiore and Manarola and Manarola and Corniglia due to landslides. However, should these parts of the path be closed long term, it is well worth taking the train to Riomaggiore, exploring the village and the coastal path as far as the National Park safety barriers allow, then heading north on a train to Manarola to spend some time there.
For our next day of walking the coastal path, we took a train from Sestri Lavante to Corniglia. From the station, it’s a stroll along the pavement before starting up the zigzag staircase of 382 steps, the ladarina, which leads walkers on to the coastal path to Vernazza. Along the way there are other similarly steep sections though thankfully with fewer steps. Other lengths of the path have been paved with flat rocks while on some corners, larger, rougher rock serves as steps between levels.
On one side the terraces are contained behind dry stone walls that were built and repaired over centuries. On the seaward side there are wooden railings in place where the path runs along particularly precipitous parts of the hillside sloping down to the sea.
Over the years as people moved away from the area, these terraces were farmed less and soil erosion and landslides added to the environmental damage. However, in 1997 this area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been given further protection through its National Park status. Behind the miles of dry stone walls there are rows of productive vines and groves of lemon and olive trees. To help the full time workers, a small army of volunteers from many parts of the world are given the opportunity to help in the maintenance of this beautiful land.
From many points on the path the views of the colourful villages, out to sea and along the coast, are stunning and vast. In the villages, the narrow lanes and squares appear timeless though a few premises now house shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants. When conditions are fine, sunbathers and swimmers head down to the shore to enjoy the sea and sunshine.
With hindsight, should we visit the Cinque Terre again, we would walk just one section per day, say, between Corniglia and Vernazza and allow ourselves more time to stand, stare, and find the perfect spot where we would sit in the shade with a picnic.
On heading home on the train journey north we stopped off in Turin. As darkness fell, we joined the crowds mingling in the impressive city centre squares lit with coloured light. Large numbers of people, out for the evening, strolled by the attractive shops along the length of the covered passageways. Other groups watched the proficient buskers playing music ranging in style from pop to classical. Having enjoyed our short time in Turin, we would definitely like to visit the city again.
This trip by train was a relaxed affair allowing us to people watch and enjoy the passing scenery and ways of different countries. Definitely recommended.
Further information: Ferries sail between Siestri Levante and the 5 villages between April and mid-October
There is a ticketing system allowing walkers access to the coastal path and other parts of the National Park.
Railbookers.com organised our train travel and hotel bookings.
Though some areas of our towns and cities are blighted by unsightly graffiti when artists with talent are given scope to create outdoor art the results, on a grand scale, can be spectacular.
In Glasgow, some of these art works are huge, covering whole gable ends of tenement buildings. A few of the images commemorate people who have made their mark in various diverse fields, including astronomy, music, and in the case of Billy Connolly, comedy and film.
Walking the City Centre Mural Trail may take you to parts of the city you’ve never explored before. Pick up a booklet containing a map from one of the city museums and head east along George Street to find Mural No1.
Some of the art installations are temporary. More information can be found at www.citycentremuraltrail.co.uk
Have you ever noticed road signs on the M74 pointing the way to Chatelherault near the town of Hamilton? Like thousands of others you may have wondered where the unusual name came from.
It’s derived from the French town, Chatelleroult. The Duchy of Chatelherault was a gift from King Henry 11 of France to the 2nd Earl of Arran, a Hamilton, for his part in the betrothal of Mary Queen of Scots to the French heir in 1548.
Later, the 5th Duke of Hamilton used the similar name for a building that has served as a hunting lodge, a summer palace and a dog kennel. Essentially though, Chatelherault, which is only one room deep, was especially designed as a sort of ostentatious terminus to catch the eye at the end of the tree-lined Grand Avenue stretching south from Hamilton Palace which was once the largest non-royal residence in Britain, possibly even in Europe and the main residence of the Dukes of Hamilton from at least 1591 until 1919.
Unfortunately, Hamilton Palace is no more. It became a casualty of Lanarkshire coal mining operations and had to be demolished in the 1920’s. Chatelherault meanwhile, was also falling into disrepair.
Today however, after extensive restorations, it has been brought back to its former glory and now forms the impressive centre-piece where visitors usually begin their explorations of Chatelherault Country Park.
Let’s start from the front door with a turn along the paved path that edges the borders on three sides of the pink sandstone building. These borders contain some trees and ornamental bushes but it was mainly herbs that were grown here.
The Duke’s table in the 18th century would have been fairly dull without them. In fact, flowers rarely got room in his garden unless they were edible. Among the herbs for use in his kitchen were parsley, thyme, rosemary and basil. Some plants were also cultivated for drying before being spread on the floors to mask the smells of everyday living. Others were used to scent the air. There’s nothing new in today’s pot pourri!
Herbs were also grown for medicinal purposes. Rosemary twined in your hair was thought to be an aid to better memory. Lemon balm, it was believed, given every morning, ‘will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature’. If only it was that easy!
At a gap in the border there is a low gate in the garden wall. Behind it, patterns have been created in the grassed area with low box hedging.
Continue along the path and the views stretch all the way to the towns of Hamilton and Motherwell with the distant hills of Ben Lomond and Drumgoyne beyond.
From the lawn area at the back door it’s a steep drop down to a much lower green sward. This different level is the result of quarrying in the past. In fine weather the space is enjoyed by children playing and picnicking. What, I wonder, would the Hamilton aristocracy have made of all this fun and games? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the local populace were seen merely as a source of income while they dug out sand and mined the coal on the Duke’s estate.
The women in this collier population were serfs or slaves like their husbands, fathers or brothers and worked with them in the mines. ‘Muscular strength in a female, not beauty was the grand qualification by which she was estimated and a strong young woman was sure of finding a husband’. If the women attempted to escape, they were liable to be seized and brought back to servitude.
However, in a letter written to the Duchess of Hamilton dated January 2nd 1851, the Duke’s factor, Robert Brown, who must have been more enlightened, described how an Act of Parliament passed on 13th June 1799 changed a way of life. In his letter he was attempting to persuade the Duchess to finance the education of these young women. Education, he pointed out, would be their saving. Their refinement would benefit the whole country and prosperity would follow.
Off to one corner at the rear of Chatelherault stands a small, square red sandstone building. Over the years it has served many purposes. Most times it was just a posh garden shed but along the way it became known as the Leopard House where the Palace leopard was kept. On other occasions it housed the 6th Duke’s polar bears! Other animals known to have used the facility included a monkey, wolf, eagle, peacock and peahen.
Before completing your walk of the square and returning to the front door of Chatelherault, look out for a small herd of Cadzow cattle. They may be seen grazing amongst the sheep in the distance. The estate is one of only a few places in the country where this rare breed with white coats and long, black - tipped horns are kept. They are possibly the descendants of wild cattle that roamed the ancient Caledonian Forest which once covered large areas of Scotland.
Wild white cattle were the sacrificial beasts of the Celtic Druids and the Romans. When the Romans left Britain, large numbers of these beasts were turned loose to roam the forests. Tradition has it that King Robert the Bruce hunted wild bulls around here in 1320 as did James 1V of Scotland two centuries later.
But never fear! As you wander the woodland paths, keep in mind that the cattle of old were rounded up and driven into parks more than three hundred years ago during the time of the enclosure of the great estates. Wild things to look out for now include bluebells, butterflies and birdlife. Stroll out to the Duke’s Bridge and you may spot, far below, a grey heron standing stock still studying the slow flow of the Avon Water.
This twisting path runs past the remains of Cadzow Castle and further on, the venerable Cadzow Oaks. Some of these trees are thought to be up to nine hundred year old remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Although they are hollow they still support a vast amount of insects and other wild life.
Chatelherault Visitor Centre has a wealth of information in the display area covering the natural history of the Clyde Valley and work that took place here on the estate.
In the banqueting room and Duke’s room you’ll have to crane your neck to appreciate the marvellously restored plaster work on the ceilings and walls.
Now try and imagine what life was like here for the bright young aristocrats who charged on horseback through the Chatelherault woods by day and danced at parties in these rooms by night. A dog’s life in the dog kennels? Not a chance
Further information: The visitor centre has a shop and a café/restaurant and information on the various woodland walks. At the entrance to the Country Park there is a play area for children.
In Celtic folklore, kelpies were believed to take the form of fearsome, powerful horses. When one of those beasts was seen, it would be easily identifiable by its white and sky blue colouring and constantly dripping mane.
It was also believed a kelpie could swim, keeping just one scary eye out of the water before changing its form to become a beautiful woman, all the better to lure men into a trap.
The Kelpies seen near Falkirk of late may therefore have been wrongly named as large numbers of people have been getting up close, unafraid, craning their necks for a better look!
These particular Kelpies, representing two horses’ heads, are a massive work of art made of thousands of pieces of stainless steel. Glinting in the sunlight, about 30 metres tall, they stand on either side of a new extension of the Forth and Clyde Canal.
From some angles, perhaps like the mythical creatures they have been named after, they appear benign, caught in two vaguely realistic poses – one head is downturned while the other reaches for the sky. And possibly because the sculptures are so big, some curious visitors are happy to pay to take a guided tour to ‘see the horse’s insides’ as it were.
As well as being monumental, complex pieces of engineering, artist Andy Scott’s Kelpies also commemorate the thousands of heavy horses that worked with their handlers during the construction of the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals.
The cutting of the first sod signalling the start of this endeavour took place in 1768 near Grangemouth at the River Forth end of the excavation that would become the Forth and Clyde Canal. It would be 1790 before this vast undertaking was completed at the village of Bowling on the River Clyde. As well as being a magnificent feat of engineering, this linking waterway between two great rivers was of immense importance in Scotland’s industrial past.
The Union Canal was built later, mainly to carry coal and building stone to Edinburgh. Goods and equipment could then be hauled across country between Glasgow and Edinburgh by barges pulled by heavy horses while sailing ships were saved a long, often arduous journey, round the north coast.
For the itinerant labourers who dug what were essentially elongated trenches, conditions must have been desperate. Consider the enormity of their task when picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, plus a few horses and carts were the available tools.
Labouring across this ‘waist of Scotland’ was nothing new, of course. Centuries earlier, the Roman Army had built a line of forts roughly parallel to where the Forth and Clyde Canal now runs. To better these defences against enemies to the north, Emperor Antonius Pius in AD140 ordered the building of a wall. It consisted of a wide, deep ditch and an earthen rampart interspersed with new forts and platforms for beacons. Though it was abandoned some 20 years later, the Antonine Wall replaced Hadrian’s Wall for a time, as the far northern frontier of the Roman Empire.
After circling the Kelpies, you might want to extend your walk or cycle (the sculpture is no distance from the Helix Park car park) along that part of the Forth and Clyde Canal in the immediate area, or explore the extensive paths in the newly created Helix Park.
Another option is to take a bus, or drive the four miles, for a look at the remains of the Antonine Wall on your way to the iconic Falkirk Wheel. In the passing you might notice the Union Inn, sited where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal were first connected by a flight of locks at Lock 16.
It was from the basin at Lock 16 that the Charlotte Dundas, the world’s first practical steamboat, headed for Glasgow in 1803.
By 1836 the number of passengers travelling on the canals had risen to 200,000. Just as today, some of them would have enjoyed a meal or perhaps a small libation in the Union Inn beside Lock 16 before continuing their journey.
Sailing between Edinburgh and Glasgow took around 7 hours in boats called ‘swifts.’ Slower night boats, the ‘hoolets’ (Scots word for owls) were popular with honeymoon couples.
In 2002, the No.16 Lock gates were superseded by the Falkirk Wheel when the world’s first rotating boatlift was opened by H.M. Queen Elizabeth. Like the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel is a marvellous feat of engineering. From a basin off the Forth and Clyde Canal, it can lift 8 boats at a time (more usually 1 boat full of visitors) and deposit them some 25 metres higher on the Union Canal.
While gazing up at this mechanical marvel, also keep in mind there may be objects still more mysterious overhead. This area, particularly the town of Bonnybridge, west of Falkirk, has a reputation for witnessing many occurrences of unidentified flying objects.
The canal towpaths can be walked in sections or on one long trek from end to end. Considering that the waterway runs through some of what was Scotland’s industrial heartlands, much of it is now gratifyingly rural with expansive views. From the Union Canal towpath you can look over Falkirk to a distant, silver sliver of the River Forth, to the Ochil Hills beyond and further still to the peaks of the Highlands.
Swans and herons and a variety of ducks seem unperturbed by passing footsteps while stretches of woodland on each side are alive with noisy birdlife. Anglers are welcome, as are other water users such as rowers and canoeists.
In places, speeding trains on the nearby rails are reminders of the progress that led to the early demise of these canals. But in a recent turnaround, for the first time in years, material has been transported by barge instead of by road or rail.
With the opening of the new Forth and Clyde Canal extension which runs between the Kelpies, the waterway is now ready for vessels arriving from or making for the North Sea and beyond.
The Kelpies were officially opened to the public on the Easter Weekend of 2014 with a spectacular sound show and late evening blaze of lights.
Days later, the John Muir Way, running between the towns of Helensburgh in the west and Dunbar in the east, was also opened.
Now this latest long distance trail which makes use of some sections of the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals is ready for walkers, cyclists, or riders on horseback.