I pull down hard on a good edge, locking in, and try to spring for the next hold, also positive, not so far, but it feels impossible... I drop back into the pit, tired and a bit demoralised. I breathe, and as I do the tall trees make their way into my awareness, the churn of running water, the moss that creeps onto my boulder problem and the fresh, damp, dirty smell of the wood that surrounds us. The bouldering, we were finding, sometimes felt pretty hard. But the Wood really was Magic.
Some vague plans to head away bouldering at the end of a busy spring and summer were solidified by friends Tom and Pippa asking if we wanted to join them for a climbing trip in Magic Wood. Somehow, during five years of meandering round European bouldering and sport crags, we have never visited this hard climber's sweet spot in Switzerland. The weather forecast, as seems standard for our trips, showed a block-out of rain and kept us uncertain to the end, but we decided to risk it and were rewarded by brilliant sunshine on our first couple of days.
Despite watching a few videos and such, it was exciting to walk the wooden bridge across the river, clear and slightly turquoise, and take those first steps into the cool shade of the wood. The path is wet and almost muddy from the last few day's rain, and there are bursts of cool air and warm sunny spots as we walk. Odd fungi dot the edges, some crushed by eager feet, and the path is fringed by creeping bilberry shrubs. Five minutes gets us to the first boulders, green-grey gneiss, chalk daubed and frequently topped with shaggy vegetation toupees. People are everywhere, grouped around boulder problems, high-liners bouncing above the river and walkers watching the spectacles that surround them, but the human noise is softened by the sound of flowing water and the environment is surprisingly peaceful.
The Sintra bouldering area is near Lisbon on the west coast of Portugal. A mist-shrouded granite massif dubbed the Mountains of the Moon overshadows the town of Sintra (incidentally, the town is twinned with Fontainebleau), and throughout this range is scattered over 1,000 boulder problems in a jungle paradise. The rock is golden and spiky, sometimes brutal on the hands but sharp enough that protective taping allows a few extra climbs. Intrusions of limestone and sandstone into the granite give a few softer holds and a different style in places.
We visited in early February and found the conditions pretty perfect for us, warm and sunny but cool in the shade. Sintra does, however, have a higher than average rainfall, the wet weather moved in on our last day in a permanent sort of way, so it could be a risky time of year to visit. At this time the countryside was splashed sulphurous yellow by the blooming of a particular flower across the hillsides, and the warmth in the forest brought out the smell of eucalyptus. The national park was beautiful to walk through and spend time in, quiet and mostly empty other than birds, frogs, and the odd mountain biker.
The area seemed quite difficult to navigate from an initial scout out so we bought a topo online from Boulder Sintra, who also gave us some recommendations for good areas to climb in on a first visit. We began with an afternoon in Dinossauros, getting the hang of the style and persuading our hands that they could pull on the sharp rock. The following day we climbed at Meca in sector Albarrasintra, which is densely populated with boulders and kept us busy. Highlights were a tall 6B, 'Tudo se parte, nada se Transforma' and a fingerey 7A prow, 'Incha-lá'.
By chance some friends were out at the same time and we had a great day together exploring Mito, another smaller part of Albarrasintra. There were two main boulders here; we climbed a number of mid-grade routes on one behemoth and then worked the classic namesake of the area on another, 'Mito', a really quality line. The next day rain threatened, and we toured the coast for bouldering to escape the incoming weather, unsuccessfully, finally settling for a drizzly climb in Satâ-Satâ. This area is a bit more spread out than some of the others with rough rock, but some fun problems scattered across a hillside where we found them.
The magnificent 'Mito'
There is plenty of good accommodation in Sintra and the surrounding villages, and a hire car would probably be a good investment to get the best out of the area. We were staying in our camper van; it is not permitted to stay within the national park area overnight so we would drive a little further to the coast, sleeping in a parking area between a couple of restaurants where we watched surfers and pink sunsets in the evenings. It was a short drive to the crags and we would often stop en route in Malveira de Serra for an espresso at the pasteleria (essential experience). Occasionally we added a 'pastel de belem', the local name for the amazingly tasty national egg pastry which was originally made by monks in the area.
Sintra is a really special bouldering area with a huge amount to do and potential for more. In general there is a really good variety of grades and styles, much more than we expected and any mental images we (I) may have had of endless huge, slappy, compression eggs were totally unfounded. The surrounding countryside is stunning, from golden beaches, through green hillsides to the cool mountains, and the town has some incredible historical monuments to explore. We're looking forward to our next trip already...
What to do when winter strikes but exchange one wild, wet, atmospheric coastline for another? After the loveliness of Christmas, an underwhelming New Year's Eve and a hurried TEFL course in London, we packed up and headed south to northern Spain. We paused for a dry day of bouldering at Jaizkibel, a pretty coastal spot just across the French/Spanish border (Atlantic side), and then the rain set in and it was time to explore the coastline and make our way southwest.
Our meta-data says that we use the word rain a lot in our blog articles. This isn't going to change much with this one.
When Peter and Anika put the idea of a September Albarracín trip to us we immediately came up with a bunch of reasons why we couldn't do it, like money, time and a possible trip next year. And then, we remembered that we're living in a small van so we can travel, and spend time in beautiful places with good friends. So we made the decision to go, slowly to save fuel, and make the most of the journey as well as the destination. This is our account of the trip.
This year, we went on holiday. Holiday is great, with relaxation, nice food, swimming, drinks... but sometimes more movement is necessary. We had checked out Mount Pantokrátor both in the guidebook and from our little 20hp boat, looming above Nisaki. It is the highest mountain on the gorgeous Greek island of Corfu, standing at 914/911/908/906m, spelt Pantokrátor/Pantocrator/ Pantokrátorus/Pandokrátor (all depending on source) and meaning “ruler of all” or “almighty”. Walking to the summit felt like a challenge, but not an excessive one as long as we left early enough in the intense July heat.
Information on the hike is sparse and poor on the internet, predominantly the same article rehashed in different places. The most useful accounts that we found were a couple of detailed personal descriptions on Tripadvisor, hidden amongst short pieces about the scariness of the drive to the summit. After a lot of research we concluded that trying to follow idyllic footpaths would probably be near to impossible to plan from the night before, but that walking from the village where we were staying would be fine. We used Google Maps to find a route, bought a pile of snacks (us: Italian maize biscuits, peanuts, apples; Sam: a huge local fruit and nut bar, fig pate, jelly sweets) and set our alarms for 6.15am. Preparation complete.
Hike in Numbers
Moving Time: 3:31:54
Total Time: 3:47:52
Calories (!): 955
Sam, my brother Sam, and I set off in the early light from Kalami, a village made famous by the Durrells and still pretty despite prolific tourism. The distance to Pantokrátor is not dissimilar to that from Kassiopi, and slightly further than from Nissaki. We tailored our route slightly to leave from our apartment above Kalami, hiking straight up to the main road rather than dropping through the village. This had mixed success; it's a nerve-racking road to walk along, sandwiched between a crash barrier over a steep drop, and the trucks thundering past, drivers honking and waving cheerfully, frappes in hand. Nevertheless, the views across to Albania from this height are stunning and the villages have a more authentic feel than the tourist oriented sites below.
At Kentroma we made the turn inland, through streets bright with geraniums. The climb began in earnest, up a tree-lined lane passing fields, farm houses, olive groves and of course the odd villa. The quiet road took us steadily up to Porta, a peaceful village. A well-reviewed restaurant, “The Old School” looks both nice and intriguing, but shut until dinner. The road vears up again, towards Megoulas. This hamlet was tiny and lifeless at the time we passed through, other than an insistently friendly little grey cat with a long face and big eyes. There is a big old mill house in Megoulas, derelict, but the millstones can still be seen leaning against each other, huge and rough, through the barred windows.
We took a track up from Megoulas, and that was the last we saw of civilisation for a while. It meanders round the hillsides, through course yellow plants and little rocky outcrops. As we walked, we could hear the rustles of lizards and snakes retreating from our footsteps, and flutters of crickets. Some flashed coral as they flew, then became invisible as they tucked their wings away on reaching the ground. This part of the walk was the most tranquil, no habitation around other than the abandoned village of Old Sinies below, just wildlife, open skies, and stunning views of Albania and Corfu..
After so long isolated in the hills above the coastline it was almost a shock to emerge onto a tarmacked road. Vehicle traffic was regular, bikers and walkers scarce. The last stretch felt long, despite cheerful assurances that “it was only ten minutes” from a Germanic family on their way back down. It was hard to get a gauge on where the top was, with the hillside appearing in and out of cloud. Some goats emerged out of the shrouds, looking quizzically down at us. We finally emerged to a chaos of parking arguments that made us happy to be without a car, and the stout legs of several radio masts that loom over the tiny monastery crowning the summit. It is all a bit surreal.
The monastery has stood in some form since the fourteenth century, and is still inhabited now. We wandered around the gardens, becoming surprisingly quickly accustomed to the mast squatting overhead, and entered the monastery itself. It is small, intimate, warm surroundings and cool temperatures. Paintings illustrate the walls and amazing pieces of beaten metalwork form internal doors. To enter, you must cover your shoulders, (and presumably more but that seemed to be all that was specified). We finished with a frappe at the cafe on hillside seats, where the clouds finally broke around the view.
There appear to be a few options to return down, but all involve at least some walking unless you hitch. We had enjoyed the 'up', and were happy to retrace our steps... to a point. Just after Porto we were feeling pretty weary, and stuck out a tentative thumb to a small car that passed by. A lovely couple from the UK stopped and happily squashed the three of us into their little back seat, dropping us five minutes from home. It was only the summit we were aiming for.
Birds Eagles? Buzzards? Serious bonus point to anyone who can identify the bird in this fuzzy photo, we'd love to hear from you; shrike – The quiet hillsides above Megoulas were dotted with scrubby bushes, and in some of these we saw pale, black streaked shrike, eyeing us suspiciously; hooded crows: hopping indolently in and out of the fog near the top, shrieking occasionally.
Insects crickets were everywhere, all different sizes and some with a slightly alarming habit of flying loudly into your face. Play it cool... On the descent we saw a couple of large praying mantis, swaying drunkenly on the path. Possibly European green mantis?
Reptiles at early afternoon we saw several big green lizards, possible Balkan Green or European Green. We also saw the tail end of a few snakes of varying sizes.
Plants the plant life was probably past its finest, in the heat of July. It still made an atmospheric backdrop to our hike, with seed heads standing jaggedly against the horizon.
If anyone can give us any further information on the wildlife in our photographs or on the island of Corfu, please comment or get in touch, especially for the 'eagle'. Thanks!
The Rough Guide to Corfu, Nick Edwards, 2003. Old, but still useful and very cheap now!
Walking the Corfu Trail: With Friends, Flowers and Food, John Waller, 2015
The Companion Guide to the Corfu Trail, www.corfutrailguide.com/ (Hilary Whitton Paipeti?)
May saw us return to the UK for, primarily, a wedding of two close friends (popular one for weddings, May) and take advantage of this to get stuck into a bit of the British bouldering scene. We also worked our butts off on various landscaping and gardening jobs and such to make up for our spring of sloth. Life needs a bit of balance.
Biblin's Cave is a small but thoroughly developed bouldering area near the Welsh border. It is environmentally very sensitive and only open May – September to allow for it's other residence, bats, which makes it feel a bit special that we are able to climb there at all. I visited for the first time with Em on a sunny afternoon; bumping into some more friends in the car park made for a good crew to work a few routes. I climbed the deservedly classic route The Bulge, and fell off Pop for the Top and Peckitt's Traverse for the rest of the session.
On a second visit, with Sam along too, we were absolutely stoked to catch up with the ever wonderful Frances, Will and Alice at Biblin's. I fell off Pop for the Top and Peckitt's Traverse some more; a less constructive session now I've climbed The Bulge, but fun nonetheless. Sam put away a reasonable first time visitor's list of The Bulge, Pop for the Top, School of Burl and Rock the Kasbah. We finished around dusk and followed Will's sat nav on a scenic route back to a very late dinner. The next day's climbing plans dissolved under a hot sun and a lazy morning spent drinking coffee and chatting peanut butter prices and milk alternatives. It couldn't have been nicer. We began the pilgrimage to Cornwall.
After a few days of seeing family and friends, a short sunny boulder session on a rather damp Godrevy Beach, and of course a bit more gardening, we started making our way back up through England. An important stop en route (other than the wedding) was to Tintagel, an esoteric bouldering spot in northern Cornwall. We drove through the faux-fairy surreality of the village, beautiful buildings, heavy spirituality peddled on every corner, heaps of wandering people and hiked down to the bouldering with Danny, Cai and Danny's dogs. Asked by at least four separate groups what the pads were for. Gave assorted answers.
The rocks at the site were outrageously slippery, everyone fell over. The sea was a bit lairy too, trying to snatch our pads, bags and Danny's dogs away. A bit of head scratching led us to suspect we had miscalculated and arrived around high tide. We waited a bit, then resumed falling over on the algeous rocks when the sea had retreated a bit. Nearly everyone was bleeding by this point.
We started climbing again, with a tentative cat dance down to the boulder pads. Everyone dispatched the classic Purple Haze deftly except me. One move is big (not too big to climb, just big enough to be too hard - this session...). Sam also climbed highly rated The Apprentice and AWOL Apprentice, a shoulder sit start to the aforementioned. Danny and Cai both climbed All Along the Watchtower. It was a fantastic first taste of this rather iconic (in the south west, and maybe even a bit further) boulder.
Late this summer we braved the stormy roads across Europe to reach Slovenia, and a family holiday near the beautiful, mountainous lake town of Bled in the north of the country. The week that we had allowed for the roughly 1,600km drive gave us lots of time to explore, and the flip-flopping weather meant that we mixed up climbing and culture to try and dodge the rain. It resulted in a hopscotch trip stopping in some fairly random places, and we would inevitably get drenched at least twice a day when the storms caught up with us. It made the journey quite exciting, like a race against the elements. With regular coffee breaks.
Switzerland has some of the most famous bouldering sites around. By some coincidence it also sits on roughly the most direct route to Northern Italy, where we had intentions to go to the bouldering festival Melloblocco. And so the idea for a mini road trip was born out of a weekend away, and we set forth from France with the vaguest outlines of a plan, a few bags of wholegrain pasta and a kilogram sack of madeleines (in case the rumours about prices in Switzerland turned out to be true).
The journey across France was long but relaxed, through green countryside that gradually grew up as we reached the Alps. We stopped in a foggy town by a river, with late night grumps and indecisions. The next morning the fog had cleared along with any teasiness, and we started out early to hit... Switzerland!