Ian Middleton: Travel Writer

Danger looms on the slopes of Mount Taranaki

“This is the old summit trail,” said the strange-looking man wearing dark sunglasses and a French Foreign Legion-style hat. A large bushy grey beard attempted to hide his expressionless face, and his thin, frail body didn’t look like it could withstand a climb to the summit. “I’m taking that route,” he said, “so you can follow me.”

We had missed a turning and were heading along the wrong trail. Our intention had been to go back, but fortune seemed to be smiling upon us.

“My wife and I used to hike this mountain all the time. She died recently, and now I hike it alone,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied.

Eying the summit of Taranaki

I eyed the large ice axe sticking out of his backpack and began to wonder if it was a wise choice to be led up an old disused trail to the 2500 metre summit of a volcano by a man who was obviously depressed and possibly suicidal.

Standing alone on the western fringes of New Zealand’s North Island sits the sad and lonely, but eminent figure of Mount Taranaki. According to Maori legend, in ancient times the giant volcanoes of the central North Island’s Taupo Volcanic Zone were gods and Taranaki lived alongside the great Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. One day however, Taranaki fell in love with Pihanga, the wife of Tongariro. The two embarked upon a whirlwind affair, while Tongariro was away. Upon his return they went to war. Fire and lava belched from the great mountain peaks for days, until finally Taranaki was defeated. Slowly and solemnly, the great volcano headed west, his path carving out the Wanganui River, and his tears filling its channel. Finally he came to rest on a small peninsula on the western coast. Here he hides in a mist of tears, lamenting the loss of his beautiful Pihanga.

However, the evening we had driven into New Plymouth, a large town on the nearby coast, the mountain had been clear and a single wisp of cloud drifted from the crater and headed east. It’s a perfect cone, rising majestically above its surroundings and is a dominating presence on a clear day. Its shape is comparable to Japan’s Mt Fuji, which is why it was the chosen location for the filming of the Last Samurai.

The next day Taranaki had disappeared behind his veil of mist. Renowned for unpredictable weather, its slopes are among the wettest in the North Island. Yet despite this, the region receives 2110 hours of sunshine annually.

Taranaki last erupted in 1755 and has been dormant ever since. On its southern slope is a bulge known as Fanthams Peak, said by some to be the child of the two lovers huddled upon his back. But the slightly more worrying fact is that Mount St Helens, in Washington State, USA, had the same bulge appear on its back before its deadly eruption.

When Captain Cook first came here he named the mountain Mt Egmont, after the man who funded his explorations. In 1900 the Egmont National Park was created, and a visitor centre was built at the start of the modern day summit trail. A huge network of hiking trails fan out from here, including the AMC (around the mountain circuit) and the summit trail. At the centre we gathered all the information we would need for our intended hike to the top. Around 53 people have died here, including some experienced hikers. Many tourists come here on a warm, sunny day and set off up the trail in shorts, tee shirt and inappropriate footwear, only to suddenly find that Taranaki changes his mood and clouds sweep in and engulf the unwitting hiker. The day can start off clear, but by midday it can be completely enshrouded in mist with zero visibility.

The trail to the summit

We had set off that morning in glorious sunshine. The glistening peak was visible from the start of the trail, and beckoned us on. Although we heeded the warning given the day before, and had stuffed our backpacks with warmer clothes and raincoats.

John was a local man, and proudly told us how he and his late wife had been members of the local tramping club. He hiked the mountain regularly and aimed to climb it every day for the rest of the summer.

“There was a plane crash here recently,” he said. “I’m hoping to find some wreckage.”

We followed behind, partly out of my irrational fear of getting an axe in my back, but mostly because that frail body of his was actually a lot fitter than both ours combined. We soon found ourselves scrambling up over steep rocky terrain and through a part of the mountain that only the locals knew about. The snow-capped summit was still glistening in the distance and the views were outstanding. We clambered up over a mixture of black lava, loose scoria and grassy outcrops. As we neared the summit we hiked alongside long fields of snow. The expression “don’t look down” was even more apt here, because when we did we saw thick clouds gathering in the valley below us. Fear began to grip us at the thought of becoming lost on this hill in zero visibility.

“Don’t worry,” said John. “I know this mountain like the back of my hand. Stick with me and I’ll get you back down.

We were thoroughly exhausted by this time and began to seriously question whether we should turn back or not. But the summit was in sight and beckoned us to conquer it. The landscape spread out before us like an architect’s model, and the scattered cloud was below us, making you feel like you were on top of the world. Above us was a startlingly blue sky and we breathed the freshest air ever. We stopped for some lunch and afterwards decided to continue on. After all, we couldn’t stop now with the end so near.

The closer we got to the summit the more rugged the terrain, until we were climbing more than walking. The snow around us got thicker, but thankfully the trail was clear.

Enjoying the view

The Summit

Finally, after around 7 hours of hiking we finally emerged inside the crater, which was completely filled with snow. From here it was a short hike up over the snow to the actual summit, but we decided this was good enough. The view from here was as good, and our legs simply protested against any more torture. So we rested while John trotted effortlessly on over the field of snow.

John trotted off to the summit

A thin layer of scattered clouds spread out below us towards the horizon and the view was breathtaking. Taranaki feeds an incredible ecosystem. The native coastal forests are among the last remaining in the North Island, supporting a wealth of flora and fauna, including the endangered native bird, the Kokako. As we sat in the snow, people were sunbathing on the surrounding beaches. There is enough diversity here to keep you busy for days, even weeks. Above us was deep blue sky. The pure, unpolluted air breathed life back into our exhausted lungs. Snow from the crater cascaded down the mountain slope. I understood now why John had brought that axe; one slip would send anyone on a long icy slide; fun maybe, until the snow gives way to jagged rocks.

Back down again

Upon John’s return we headed back down along the new summit trail before veering off on a short cut. The official summit trail was actually more difficult due to the amount of scoria, which is easy to go down, but is often much harder to climb up. With a little help from gravity, hiking down a mountain is often a bit quicker, and we made it back to the visitor centre in 3 hours. Visibility had remained good even on the way down. The hike up should have taken around five hours, had we not gone the wrong way and been so unfit.

Taranaki had spared us his tears and allowed us safe passage to his heart. John, like the mountain, was also lamenting the loss of his beloved woman, but had proved an excellent guide and a very patient man indeed. Fortune really had smiled on us today. We thanked him for sticking with us all the way and showing us a route up this incredible volcano that many visitors would never know about.

With that in mind we crawled to the car like two chimpanzees on valium and drove back to the comfort of our hostel, and the welcome warmth of a soft bed.

By Ian Middleton

Info:

Places to stay:

Egmont Eco-Lodge
12 Clawton Street, New Plymouth
Tel (06) 753 5720


Booking.com

 

Getting there:

http://www.airnewzealand.com flies from London to Auckland via LA.

http://www.koreanair.com/ flies from London to Auckland via Seoul.

 

Getting around:

InterCity Group (NZ) Ltd.
PO BOX 26 601,
Epsom, Auckland

Web: http://www.intercitycoach.co.nz/

 

Backpacker buses:

www.backpackerbus.co.nz/

www.kiwiexperience.com/

 

Driving: If you plan on being there for a while then you can buy a car at the backpackers car market in Auckland.



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Ryanair to offer connecting flights for the first time.

For the first time ever low cost airline Ryanair will start offering connecting flights. The first will be at Rome Fiumicino airport, but others will be rolled out shortly afterwards.

This is part of Ryanair’s big “Always Getting Better” makeover. This will be the first time the airline has allowed passengers to change planes without having to make a separate booking.

Discussions are also going on with a view to offering third party connections with Aer Lingus and Norwegian Airlines.

Read more here on Breaking News



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Maribor Airshow – Sat Apr 8th 2017 – Slovenia

Bomber at the Red Bull open day at Maribor Edvard Rusjan Airport, Slovenia. Austria Airlines is landing in the background

For all airshow lovers, there is a small but fun airshow day this Saturday Apr 8th at Maribor Edvard Rusjan Airport in Slovenia. The Austrian Flying Bulls with be there for a week of training, with Saturday being open to the general public.

Entry is free.

More info here: www.flyingbulls.at/en/events-stories/events/

Helicopter acrobatics at the Red Bull open day at Maribor Edvard Rusjan Airport, Slovenia

Bomber and Corsair flyng off at the Red Bull open day at Maribor Edvard Rusjan Airport, Slovenia



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Donegal, host to Tony Blair’s first pint of Guinness

Mount Errigal

‘So why do think more people don’t come here?’ was a question I was asked when doing an interview for Highland Radio in Letterkenny. It was an interesting question, and one for which I didn’t really have an answer.

I first came to County Donegal way back in the summer of 1999. If it hadn’t been for the book I was reading at the time telling of Tory Island and its most famous resident, I might never have ventured up into this corner of the Republic of Ireland. I might also have thought that Donegal was part of Northern Ireland, as I suspect many do. However, thankfully this was not the case because I would have been deprived of seeing one of Ireland’s most beautiful counties, and of discovering a little known tourist attraction.

Just like after my first trip to Northern Donegal, I returned to the beauty and tranquillity of Bunbeg Harbour, and stayed at the luxurious Bunbeg House. The harbour is sheltered from the storms of the North Sea and it’s a short walk along a country road to the village of Bunbeg itself. Bunbeg, Derrybeg and Gweedore pretty much run into each other. Even if you could understand the Gaelic signs you still wouldn’t know if you’d left one village for another. The area claims to be one of the most densely populated rural areas in Western Europe.

The Poisoned Glen

I spent my days exploring the area. From the rugged, wild beauty of the Bloody Foreland (the coastline stretching east from Bunbeg to Magheroarty) to Mt Errigal, the Poisoned Glen and the stunning Glenveagh National Park, this part of Ireland is a true wilderness packed with natural beauty. At 751-metres (2,464 ft) Errigal is also the most southern, steepest and highest of the mountain chain, called the “Seven Sisters” by locals. It’s distinctive conical shape makes it recognisable from miles around. A trail leads to the top starting from the car park off the R251 road in Dunlewey, or you can start your hike from behind the nearby Errigal Youth Hostel.

Dunlewey (Dun Luiche), which means Lugh’s Fort, is named after the Celtic demigod Lugh, Grandson of Balor of the Evil Eye, the feared leader of an ancient race known as the Formorians. Their base was on Tory Island. Balor’s druid had told him of a prophecy where he would be killed by his grandson. So to ensure this prophecy didn’t come true, he locked away his only daughter, Eithne in a glass tower on the eastern promontory of Tory.

However, the Cian, warrior of the Tuatha de Danann, while on a visit to Tory, broke into the tower and seduced Eithne and nine months later she gave birth to Triplet. Balor cast all three babies into the sea, but unbeknown to him Lugh was rescued by the sea god, Manannan mac Lir, who whisked him off to Spain to be raised by Tailltiu, the daughter of the King of Spain.

Lugh returned to this region as a grown man and warrior of the Tuatha de Dannan. He built a fort here, and eventually fulfilled his prophecy and killed Balor in a great battle on the Plain of Moy Tura, in County Sligo.

It was here that I discovered an intriguing, and possibly little known fact. I phoned a journalist friend in Wexford, who is actually from Donegal. Upon learning that I was in his home county, he proceeded to list all the things I should see. The most intriguing place he mentioned was Rossnowlagh Beach. Not only is it viewed as one of the best beaches in Ireland, but is also the area where the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had his first pint of Guinness.

‘It’s somewhere around that area,’ said Marty. ‘I’m not sure exactly where, but just ask anyone and they’ll be able to tell you.’

So I set off with the intention of seeking out this place.

Blue stack Mountains

Northern Donegal has the rugged, rocky Derryveagh Mountains, but the southern landscape is much greener with dense forest and deep valleys cutting through the lovely Blue Stack Mountains. We took a winding road through a valley dotted with sheep, many of whom seemed to think they had as much right to be on the road as the cars, if not more. This was exemplified by one asleep in the middle of the road as I came around a corner.

Nestled at the edge of these mountains and sitting beside the ocean is the small village of Glencolmcille, which contains the fantastic Dooey Hostel.

The Dooey Hostel is the flagship property for the IHO (Independent Hostel Owners).

The hostel is set high up on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the bay. At the end of a long corridor we were greeted by Mary, a little old lady with wild hair, a wry grin and a mischievous look in her eyes. Immediately Mary thrust out her hand and extended her warmest welcome. Behind her stood Leo, who handed us a tray with two cups of tea and a plateful of biscuits. Downstairs there was a large kitchen. Mary then led us upstairs to the common room. We stepped through the door into a long, spacious room with dining tables, a fireplace and a couple of sofas in the far corner. A set of large bay windows, the length of the room, looked out across the mountains, ocean and down into the valley. The view was breathtaking.

We stayed here for a couple of days then headed off to another great hostel in nearby Kilkar, The Derrylahan hostel.

Slieve League – the highest sea cliffs in Europe

Our reason for coming here was to view the Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. At the village of Carrick we turned off for Teelin. To view the cliffs you can drive up to a car park at the Bunglas viewing point, or hike a trail from the bottom. At the car park, we hiked up a small hill and sat atop watching the sheer face of the 300-metre cliffs change colour with the setting of the sun.

Rossnowlagh Beach

The next morning we headed off on the final leg of our trip around Donegal. Rossnowlagh Beach lies just north of Ballyshannon, and is highly popular among surfers. Its other great feature is that you can drive onto the beach itself.

The most prominent feature of Rossnowlagh Beach is the Sandhouse Hotel, on the side of which is the Surfer’s Bar. I figured this would be a good place to start my search for this famous pub. I wandered in and up to the bar, a little unsure of what to say.

‘Hi there,’ I said to the barmaid. ‘I’ve been told that Tony Blair had his first pint of Guinness in this area. Is this true?’

‘Oh sure!’ she replied. ‘It was either here, or Whoriskey’s.’

It turned out to be Whoriskey’s, in nearby Cashelard.

Whoriskey’s Pub

Now, local people in Ireland will call a pub by the name of the owners, and not by its official name. So when I pulled up in Cashelard and could only see a pub called The Travellers Rest, I was confused.

Cashelard is a tiny village, and there was no sign of another pub.

I wandered inside and was greeted by a young man behind the bar.

‘Hi, is this Whoriskey’s?’ I asked.

‘It is,’ he replied.

‘And is this the pub where Tony Blair had his first pint of Guinness?’

‘That’s right,’ he laughed.

‘Great!’ I replied. ‘We’ve found it.’

There was an awkward pause. Well, I’ve found it, I thought. Great… so what do I do now? Guess we should have a drink.

We all sat down and ordered our drinks. The barman chatted for a while, but didn’t really seem to have anything more to offer on the subject of Tony Blair. I actually felt a little let down. We had finally found this place and now it was all over, there was nothing more to it. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I had hoped for a more fitting end.

Almost in response to my plea, an old lady appeared behind the bar, greeted us and asked what we were doing in this little backwater of Ireland. I told her, and she immediately went away and returned with a pile of newspaper clippings.

This was more like it.

The event was first revealed back in November 1998 when the media tracked down this pub, and for a brief moment the Travellers Rest was thrust into the limelight. Rose, the old lady with us now, and her husband Vinnie Whoriskey were running the pub at the time.

‘Do you get a lot of people coming in here asking about this?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes,’ replied Rose, with a wink. ‘I tell them all that he was sitting at that table over there when he was here, but that table wasn’t even there back then.’

Tony Blair’s maternal grandparents were Sally Lipsett from Ballyshannon and George Corscaden from nearby Cashelard. George and Sally lived in Glasgow after their marriage in 1918, but Sally was home on a visit to her family in Ballyshannon when she gave birth to Blair’s mother, Hazel, in 1922.

Tony Blair revealed his Donegal roots shortly after becoming Prime Minister.

He told how he spent his childhood on holiday in Rossnowlagh and Cashelard with his parents, and recalled having his first sip of Guinness when his father took him to the only pub in Cashelard, the Travellers Rest.

Vinnie and Rose retired and sold the pub to their son Brendan, who came in shortly after. However, they said they still liked to be around the place from time to time to help out, and of course to chat to the customers.

 

Sadly Rose Whoriskey passed away back in 2015. RIP

 

Info

 

Bunbeg House 074 9531305. www.bunbeghouse.com

Dooey Hostel, Glencolmcille. Tel: 074 9730130. www.glencolmcille.ie/dooey.htm

Derrylahan Hostel, Kilcar. Tel: 074 9738079. homepage.eircom.net/~derrylahan

IHO (Independent Hostels Ireland) www.independenthostelsireland.com

 

Directions to the Traveller’s Rest, Cashelard: From Ballyshannon take the N15 north towards Donegal Town. A few miles out of Ballyshannon turn right at a very small sign for Cashelard. The country road will take you a couple miles past the creamery and finally into Cashelard. The pub is next to a small church.

For more stories and travel info on Ireland check out my books:






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Down Mexico Way – Ian Middleton

 

Available on Amazon Kindle or Ebook

Dusty pueblos adorned with adobe houses, each with a man sitting against a wall, a large sombrero tipped over his face, heavy snoring sounds emitting from underneath that hat; barefoot Indian women and children walking through the dusty, cobbled streets. These were the first images that came to mind when Ian Middleton thought of Mexico. But was it really like that? He had read James A Michener’s historical novel on Mexico, and it had portrayed a country of rich cultural diversity. These are the things that had ignited in Ian a burning desire to see this country for himself.

As a novice traveller this was an extremely daring move. Especially as he would be travelling alone. Ian knew nobody in Mexico. Although he’d travelled the year before for the first time in Australia, he’d had the advantage of knowing people there. This would his first real trip in a foreign land completely alone.
Yet as Ian was to find out, there is no such thing as being alone on the backpacker trail. The meeting of two Canadian girls soon threw him into the backpacker scene, and by the time he finally crossed the border into Mexico, was part of a small group of people all with similar intentions.

The first two weeks of the journey were spent in California, which actually used to belong to Mexico before war with the US ended in Mexico ceding all of its north-western territories to the US. Upon entry into Mexico Ian soon found himself in exactly the land he had imagined: dusty pueblos, men in cowboy hats, barefoot Indian women and much more. But that wasn’t all. Over the next four months Ian was to really discover the diversity of this land: the mountainous interior, the deserts of the north, the tropical lowlands of the south and the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan. He met a variety of people from backpackers from all walks of life to local Mexican people, many of whom humbled him with their extreme kindness and generosity despite their poverty-stricken lives. He soon discovered that Mexican food was a force to be reckoned with, a force that on two such occasions won pants down, so to speak.

Whether hitching a lift through the Baja desert with an eccentric old American named Leroy, chugging through the mountains on a train straight out of the Wild West, being fed and entertained on buses by local people, or travelling five weeks through the Yucatan Peninsula in a van with a couple from California, Ian discovers the wonders of travelling in this diverse country of rich culture and wonderful people. The book shows how it is possible to travel anywhere and always find a place to stay. It shows how easy it is to get about in foreign countries and how sometimes it can be much more fun to do it yourself rather than arrange a package tour. It shows the hardships of budget travelling, but the rewards that it can reap. It shows how diverse the country is and how it is not as dangerous as people might imagine. And it shows that this country is just how Ian had envisioned it, and much, much more.

Click here to Download a sample free of charge. Requires Adobe eBook Reader or Adobe Acrobat to read. If you do not have these you can download them here

Buy at the following retailers:

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DUNDALK – THE ROAD WHERE THINGS GO BACKWARDS

‘Have you been to the road where things go backwards?’ asked Eilish, as I sitting having breakfast in the Carlow hostel.

‘The what?’ I replied.

‘The road where things go backwards. It’s up near Dundalk. Daddy took some Americans there last year. There is a section of road that goes downhill and if you stop the car at the bottom, put it in neutral and release the brake the car will roll backwards up the hill.’

I started looking for the TV cameras. This was obviously some sort of joke. The thing was that Eilish was dead serious.

‘You’re joking, of course,’ I replied.

‘No, it’s no joke. It’s up north of Dundalk. Daddy knows where. I’ll get him on the phone for you.

Before I knew it I was speaking on the phone to a fella called Éamonn, who proceeded to explain to me in full detail how to get there. ‘It’s no joke,’ he explained. ‘I took some American friends up there, and the man was a high court judge. Well, they couldn’t believe their eyes and videoed the whole process.

I put the phone down and pondered this for a moment. It couldn’t be a joke; they certainly wouldn’t send me all the way up there as a joke. The Irish were fun loving, but not cruel. I still couldn’t find those cameras, so I assumed it must be true, or at least true in the old man’s eyes.

I mentioned this to my friend Eoin, who had never heard of it and was quite intrigued by it all. Later that day I met up with my friend Eddie who is basically the Delboy of Ireland, and one of the best known street traders around. Eddie had been there, and said that back in the day when it was first discovered it was all over the television, and is also in the Guinness book of records.

A few weeks later I found myself purposely travelling up that way in order to check out this phenomenon. I drove into Dundalk and spent a few hours visiting the local papers looking for potential book reviews. During an interview with Francis Carroll at the Argus I mentioned that I was up here to look for this.

‘Ah yes, I know it,’ he said. ‘I used to live near it. Can’t remember what it’s called, though. But it’s on the road out to Carlingford. Look for the turn off for McCrystals and ask anyone around there. Actually Carlingford is a nice little place to visit.’

I then went for an interview with Joe Carroll (don’t know if they are related) who was a very funny and friendly man. Joe also knew of the place. ‘Gravity Hill,’ he called it, and sent us on our way with a hearty handshake and some fruit from a nearby basket for the journey.

With all these people knowing about this, I was beginning to wonder if this would mar the adventure somewhat and that we would arrive to find a queue of tourists in cars paying small fees of money to ride the hill.

According to Éamonn’s directions I had to clock up eight miles to the turn off along the Carlingford road before finding the turn off for a tourist attraction called the Long Woman’s Grave. The Carlingford road took us along the stunningly beautiful Cooley Peninsula, awash with low green hills, high mountains and ocean views. As I drove I searched in vain for the signs, but before I knew it was driving into Carlingford town.

I pulled to the side of the road and asked a man digging his front garden.

‘Ah, you’re the second person to ask me about that. You’ve gone past it. Go back out to the Dundalk road and drive for about five miles and you’ll see McCrystals and a big petrol station. The turning is directly opposite. Ask inside and they’ll direct you from there.’

Carlingford turned out to be a pretty little town sitting aside Carlingford Lough with narrow streets and whitewashed cottages. The peninsula’s mountains formed a stunning backdrop to the town. It had been my intention to see this hill and then drive on to Donegal, but time was getting on and I quite took to the idea of spending the night in this attractive little seaside town. I found the Carlingford Adventure Centre and Holiday Hostel, but there was no parking outside. The woman at reception informed us there were public toilets near the tourist office and suggested that we spend the night in the car park there.

We left Carlingford and headed back out on the Dundalk road. Five miles were clocked up and still there was no sign of McCrystals or a petrol station. I figured that five miles was just a bad estimate on his part. It was, and soon I was pulling into the petrol station. There was still no sign of McCrystals. The girl at the counter smiled when I asked her about the road that goes backwards.

‘Go back down the road towards Dundalk and take the first turn off left. Follow the road to the right and then immediately left.’

I took the turn off and discovered that what everyone had been talking about was actually a sign for McCrystals, not the store itself. After another wrong turn we headed back to that road and found McCrystals Food Store just a little way up. We pulled over there for a drink and an ice cream.

‘I’m looking for the road where things go backwards,’ I said, as he handed me my ice cream.

‘Ah, Magic Road,’ he said.

‘Is that what you call it then?’

‘That’s right. If you go left from here to the end of the road you’ll come to a T-Junction, take a right and then an immediate left. Follow the road to the top of the hill, then down into a dip where you’ll see a big mushroom. Stop there, put the car in neutral and release the brake. You’ll roll backwards up the hill.’

A big mushroom! I thought. This phenomenon was obviously having a strange effect on the locals.

The Big Mushroom

I got back in the van, finished my ice cream and then took to the road. At the junction I took a right then a left at signs indicating the Táin Trail, which is a 40-kilometre trail that makes a circuit of the peninsula through the Cooley Mountains. The road led up a long, straight and steep incline and then at the brow of the hill went down into a dip. At the bottom of this hill I spotted a large, brown, circular storage hut, which, if you imagined hard enough, could have been a giant mushroom. Immediately I slammed on the brakes.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Nika, my travelling companion.

‘I think this is it,’ I replied. ‘Look, there’s the mushroom.’

Nika remained quiet, possibly wondering if this obsession was beginning to affect my sanity. We were at the very base of the hill, so I put the van in neutral and took my foot off the brake.

‘Bloody hell!’ I cried. ‘Look, we’re rolling uphill!’

And we were, we were rolling up the hill. It was amazing, no it was astounding. The hill slanted upwards slightly then became steeper halfway up. At the steeper point we picked up speed, until finally reaching the brow of the hill and then beginning to roll down the big hill. I braked, put the van in gear and drove down the hill again to the mushroom. Once again we rolled back up the hill. I felt like a child who’d just watched a magician for the first time. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I rode up and down that hill for the next half an hour, as traffic passed cautiously. The local people watched with amusement, obviously knowing exactly what I was up to. You could tell when the passing car contained tourists because they looked on with complete bewilderment at this deranged man driving up and down the hill.

I drove up the other side and turned around. A man was building a wall in front of his house, and watched us with a smile. I drove back down and stopped at the same place, to see if we rolled forward. We did, but somehow it didn’t have the same effect. So I turned around again and repeated the backwards roll. I swung my head from back to front looking from both angles trying to see how this worked. I couldn’t. Nika got out and took photos and then drove the van herself.

Eventually I pulled the van over to the side and studied the road from the side. From the ground I could see that the road actually slanted down and that it was the funny angle of the hill creating this illusion. It really was an illusion, but it was a bloody good one. But what was so great was that there wasn’t a queue of tourists paying to try it. There wasn’t even a sign to indicate what it was. It hadn’t been exploited one bit, and was just a piece of country road with a hidden secret.

Eventually I managed to tear myself away. We decided to continue up the road to the Long Woman’s Grave. Once again we passed the man building his wall and waved. He waved back, took one look at our huge grins, and burst out laughing.
The Long Woman’s Grave lay at the very top of the hill. There was nothing else around except rocky hills and sheep. A small sign by a pile of rocks indicated the grave. A plaque underneath told the story. Another car had pulled up and a woman got out and joined us as we read it:

The Legend of the Long Woman

Deprived of his heritage by a scheming brother, Lorcan O’Hanlon of the Ui Meith Mara, using his splendid galley, engaged in profitable trading to the East. On one voyage he rescued a Spanish grandee and his daughter, Cauthleen, descendents of the princely O’Donnells. He fell in love with the tall Spanish girl and promised to bring her to Ireland to share his possessions in view from high up on the mountain.

With him, she climbed to this hollow and saw a small area of barren, rocky mountain. The shock was such that she collapsed and died. This scattered pile of stones marks the last resting place of the Long Woman.

I imagine her last words were: ‘Bloody hell, you expect me to live here?’

‘It’s a bit of a tall story, isn’t it?’ said the lady who had joined us.

We laughed. Naturally we got chatting and I couldn’t resist asking her if she’d heard about Magic Hill. She had heard something about it but didn’t realise it was around here. I had been bursting to talk to someone about it, so for the next ten minutes her ears flapped back and forth as they were bombarding with my excitable words.

Inevitably the conversation got on to me being a travel writer and that I was travelling around to publicise and sell my book. Ten more minutes later I was signing a copy for her. So there I was, on a lonely mountaintop surrounded by rocks, sheep and sheep shit, and I was selling a book to the only other tourist there. I wondered how many travel writers could say that they had sold a book and done and signing at the top of a lonely mountain at the Long Woman’s Grave, after having rolled backwards up the hill?

Directions to Magic hill

Leave Dundalk and take the R173 to Carlingford. Halfway along you will spot a Texaco Petrol Station. Take the first left after this, where you’ll see a sign for McCrystals Food Store, and signs for the Táin Trail and Oriel Trail; there is no sign for the Long Woman’s Grave. Follow the road around and past McCrystals until you reach a T-Junction. Turn right and immediately left on the other side, again following signs for the Táin and Oriel Trails. Follow the road straight to the brow of the hill, go down into a dip and stop immediately next to the big mushroom. Then watch in amazement as your car rolls back up the hill.

 

Read more about this and other great places to visit in Ireland in my book: Mysterious World Ireland






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Mysterious World: Ireland – Ian Middleton

If you love to travel Ireland, and are fascinated by all its ancient history, legends and folklore, then check out my guidebook:

Mysterious World: Ireland represents the next generation of travel guides. More than just a listing of names, numbers, and dates, Mysterious World takes readers behind the scenes to help them understand the history and the mystery of this sacred isle. The book delves deep into Ireland’s legendary past, looking especially at the mysterious people who invaded Ireland time and time again in search of their destinies. The book also covers Ireland’s known history up to the time of Cromwell, providing a thorough understanding of what it is to be Irish. In addition, the book presents one man’s quest to rediscover mysterious Ireland as he travels throughout the four ancient provinces of Ireland.

 

Starting with The Mystery, you will delve deep into Ireland’s legendary past, and the mysterious people who invaded Ireland time and time again in search of their destinies. In The History, you will discover Ireland’s known history up to the time of Cromwell, and receive a thorough understanding of what it is to be Irish. Finally, in The Journey, you will be taken along one man’s journey throughout all the four ancient provinces. A full colour, fully illustrated guide with celtic artwork and photography from The Journey.

For a preview of photos included in the book, click here.



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Two new flights into Ljubljana, Slovenia

Great news! Ljubljana just became even more accessible. Budget airlines Easyjet and Transvia now offer two new routes

Easyjet – As well as flying from London Stansted, are now flying from London Gatwick

Transvia – The Dutch budget airline will be offering direct flights from Amsterdam from April 4th.

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Sligo Salting Monday

In Sligo the first Monday in lent was called Salting Monday – unmarried women would be salted to preserve them.



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Janče, The Garden of East Ljubljana

Janče is known locally as the Triglav of the Ljubljana area. Although it may pale in comparison to the mighty mountain, at 792 metres high this small hilltop village is the highest point in the Zasavsko Hribovje mountain range that dominates the eastern horizon of Ljubljana, and offers unrivalled panoramic views into the Besnica valley and across the capital, as well as being the hub for two of the area’s great walking trails.

The wonderfully fresh air breathes life back into your tired lungs. The only sound to be heard is that of the wind gently rustling the leaves on the trees. A farmer loads his trailer full of fruit as his faithful dog sits panting under the shade of an apple tree. The noon bells toll in the nearby church of Saint Nicholas. And the view across the valley is one of rich colours interspersed with small villages where church spires stand proud above the farmhouses. And to think it’s just 25kms from the city centre.

The Blueberry Trail

The quickest way is out through the suburbs of Polje and Zalog, then on to Podgrad. The village of Podgrad is the starting point for one of the region’s three popular tourist trails: the Blueberry Trail (Borovniceva Pohodna Pot). Podgrad means “under the castle” and this relates to the two medieval castles that once sat on the hills above the town. Small remains of the Stari Grad (old castle), on the Kašelj hill, are all that are left. These trails were designed by the Besnica-Jance tourist organisation, whose aim is to preserve the fragile farming community in the area. With the increasing difficulties faced by everyone these days, landowners are looking for other ways to maintain their farms and livelihoods. Like many people in remote areas, they are turning to tourism in order to do this, and with great success. The many farms dotted along the trails offer traditional Slovenian produce such as strawberries, cherries, peaches, plums, apples, potatoes and sweet chestnuts, and homemade pastries, schnapps, fruit juices, salami and sausages.

The Blueberry trail is primarily a hiking track that winds through the beautiful Besnica Valley. The start of the trail is just a few kilometres from the city centre, and makes an ideal afternoon or full day out not only for small groups or individuals, but for the entire family. The hike is not very demanding, so will make an easy day out for the children who can get to experience the wonders of nature while embarking on an adventure through the fairy tale beauty of these forests.
The trail is well maintained and also signposted. To hike the entire length on foot will take around 4 hours one way. You will either have to walk back, or arrange transport from Janče.

As you leave Podgrad the sign directs you up into the hills past one of the many tourist farms in the area. The trail runs along a forest track that leads into the hills past the village of Tomaž and on to Vnajnarje, where it branches off left and partly follows the country road to Janče.

As the name suggests, in season you can pick the blueberry fruit along the way. You can also visit the many tourist farms and purchase homemade food, drink and condiments. For something different, stop in Gabrje where there is a herbalist farm specialising in herbal remedies.

Strawberries and a fat dragon

If you are hiking with children, make it more exciting by taking them on the local dragon hunt. The area around Janče was once known as the land of the strawberries. Local legend tells of a man who brought back seeds from his travels around the world and left them to his daughter when he died (I could think of better inheritances).

The seeds were planted and for a time the region enjoyed the fruits of this inheritance. That is until one day a local farmer became consumed with jealousy and put a spell on an egg, which ultimately hatched into a dragon that proceeded to roam the land eating all the strawberries. When he ate the last strawberry he was so heavy that he sank into the ground near a waterfall, never to be seen again.

The children’s playground outside the tourist farm in Janče has been designed to resemble a dragon to commemorate this story and is where your child will find its dragon.

As the highest point, Janče offers outstanding views across the Besnica Valley. Sit for a while and enjoy the tranquillity of this peaceful village, visit the lovely baroque church or enjoy traditional homemade dished in the Alpine Hut.

The Fruit Road

Autumn is a great time to visit, and the countryside is resplendent with autumn colours splattered across the landscape like an artist’s pallet. Many of the trees bear the ripened fruits that you can purchase from the nearby tourist farms. Try the delicious homemade apple cider.

The church of Saint Marjeta in Prezganje in the Jance hills to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia

The area between Janče and Javor is known as the Fruit Road (Sadna Cesta). The best way is to cycle or drive. Head through Janče and follow the road towards Volavje. The view from the village is dominated by the Church of Marjeta (Sv. Marjeta), which sits on the hilltop of Prežganje.

This beautiful church is partially obscured by a huge horse chestnut tree, one of many mighty old trees in the Besnica Valley. On a clear day you can get a perfect view of both the Julian Alps and Kamnik Alps in the north of Slovenia from this church Back down on the road a signed trail leads down to the Pecovje Tufa waterfall, which is where the dragon now lies underground.

The Chestnut Trail 

The small village of Sadinja Vas is the starting point for the Chestnut Trail (Kostanjeva Pohodna Pot). Walking the trail will take four hours and cycling 1½. A good level of fitness is needed for both. From here the trail heads up into the hills towards Cešnjica and Zagradišce, up over Babna Gora and on to Javor by country road framed on either side by trees. Join the locals as they collect the fallen chestnuts that dot the roadside.

From St. Anna’s Church in Javor you can marvel at the gorgeous views of Ljubljana before continuing on along a ridge to the small hilltop village of Mali Vrh. Here you will join the Forest Nature Science Path (Gozdna Naravoslovna Ucna Pot), where regular signs represent pages of a book that is designed to teach you all about nature and the forest, of which over two thirds cover these hills.

Autumn in the Jance hills. From here you get a great view of the western mountains.

A great time to visit Janče is during the annual Strawberry Sunday and Chestnut Sunday. They take place around June and October. For exact dates check with the tourist office in Ljubljana. Or visit the Fruit Trail website for dates, unfortunately only in Slovene: http://sadnacesta.si/

Events page here: http://sadnacesta.si/category/sadna-cesta/tradicionalne-prireditve/

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View across to the mountains at sunset, seen from a hill in prezganje in the Jance hills to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

View across to the church of Saint Nicholas and the village of Jance at sunset, in the hilly region to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset winter view across a hill in prezganje, just across from the church. Footprints are leading up to a shrine. The shrine is to Jesus Christ, built to commemorate the first visit of Pope John Paul the second to Slovenia in 1996. From this hill you get a panoramic view of Sneznik and Krim mountain in the west, and the Julian Alps in the north.

View across to the Krim mountain at sunset, seen from a hill in prezganje in the Jance hills to the east of Ljubljana, Slovenia.






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