For over a decade, visiting the incredible Manchester Christmas Market has been an autumnal household tradition. Before we lived in Greater Manchester we would take the train into Manchester for a special day out. Once we lived in Salford, we would walk across the Irwell and potter around the market a number of times, usually starting with the opening day. The Christmas Market was always my number one choice to meet friends and soak up some festive atmosphere.
A mug of gluhwein isn’t cheap, so we will save some money this year but I will miss standing in the cold, people milling around me, my gloved hands wrapped around a mug of steaming hot gluhwein. The warming spicy wine is something that tastes best drunk outside surrounded by Christmas, it just doesn’t taste the same drunk at home. Part of the fun of drinking my gluhwein is having Rudolph, the festive singing reindeer, belting out Christmas songs above my head and Manchester’s Gothic town hall looking magnificent across the square.
On a weekday morning I would be one of the first visitors to the Christmas Market, taking the chance to browse the stalls and maybe even buy something. But mostly Manchester’s Christmas Market is about the food and drink. For a mid-morning snack I might buy a bag of warm, spicy nuts to nibble before finding a seat and treating myself to an alcoholic hot chocolate from the French stall on charming King Street. It is the next best thing to being in Paris.
In the afternoons, before the after-work rush, we will arrange to meet friends for gluhwein. After years of research I have found that the gluhwein varies across the many stalls and our favourite has become the drink from what we call the Rudolph stall. This stall always has prime position in Albert Square, provides malted milk biscuits to soak up your gluhwein and has the singing reindeer head above the counter. Their gluhwein isn’t too sweet and sickly, it tastes of alcohol and provides the much-anticipated inner glow. While I am happy with straight gluhwein, my partner likes to add rum to his gluhwein for that extra kick!
Before all the building work began we would often meet friends in the Alpine hut complex on Brazennose Street, for some reason always a quiet corner of the market even in the evenings. The crowds flock to Albert Square for the lights and conviviality and by contrast, Brazennose Street always had seats and even shelter, useful if rain was threatening. It was also quiet enough to facilitate talking without shouting. Unfortunately, this cosy spot served gluhwein so sweet it was like sipping hot Vimto, rather than anything alcoholic. This always fooled my brain into thinking it was harmless and I would find myself getting up for more refills than I should!
As the evening progressed all that gluhwein would make me hungry and I would head for the Bavarian käsespätzle stall in Albert Square. The glum owner was never happy to be in Manchester; while we waited for a new batch of käsespätzle to be cooked he would often complain about the high cost of his stall, the poor facilities and how much he missed home. He returned year after year so the trip must have made financial sense and eating a plateful of his delicious German version of macaroni cheese transported me right back to Germany where this dish is often the only vegetarian option on a menu.
It has been decided to cancel the Christmas Market in Manchester this year due to coronavirus. Certainly social distancing is all but impossible on a busy evening on the market. It is just another part of my life and year that has been taken away and I will really miss it. I will just have to keep watching and re-watching the beautiful Lego version in the video below.
Lock Down Two gave me a bit of time to look back on our happy campervan years. I would describe myself as a campervan enthusiast rather than expert, so I was surprised when we realised that we had now owned a campervan for 15 years. We still have plenty to learn about the art of owning a house on wheels but, after so long, we must know more than we did back in 2005 when we were campervan virgins. In that 15 years three different campervans have captured my heart and joined us on our holidays. Each one has been blue and each one slightly longer in length than the last. In those 15 years we have put 1,319 camping nights under our belts, staying on over 700 different campsites and other overnight spots.
Owning a campervan was a dream for me from being a young teenager. It remained on my wish list for many years, as even second-hand they are an expensive purchase. I was in my 40s before we were in a secure enough financial position to buy our first campervan and even then we had to re-mortgage the house to buy a second-hand six year old ‘van! This first campervan was blue and somehow that felt right and set the trend for the following two.
We were nervous choosing that first ‘van, not really having a clue what we were doing. We spent many fun-filled hours looking around motorhome sales areas in the north-west before eventually buying from Todds, near our home in Preston. The discreet expertise of the Todd’s staff reassured us as we took a deep breath and parted with our cash. After viewing campervans with a variety of layouts and lengths, some with bathrooms, some without, we decided to keep it simple and chose a reliable Volkswagen with a straightforward layout. It was a short-wheel base VW T4 with a high top and a traditional rock ‘n’ roll bed and side kitchen. We knew this first ‘van was a testing-the-water sort of purchase, rather than a forever campervan and it gave us the chance to see if vanlife would live up to our expectations.
We took this first ‘van to Scotland, of course, around England and to Germany. Quite quickly we bought a driveaway awning to give us a bit more space and the ‘van transformed our festival experience when we spent the weekend at the Hurricane Festival in northern Germany. Having our very own home on wheels to escape to and relax in, away from the bustle of the festival, was heavenly.
We learnt a lot owning that first ‘van and never regretted starting with a simple conversion. We didn’t have to get into the intricacies of water heaters, refillable gas cylinders and complex bed making. All these things would have obscured the pure excitement of being campervan owners. The VW allowed us to make mistakes, read more about owning a ‘van and talk to other campers, learning at our own pace.
We returned from a trip to Salisbury in Blue Bus One with a more practical understanding of campervan electrics. It was February and we didn’t have a hook-up. With temperatures below zero the blown air heating was keeping us warm and toasty as we played cards into the evening. Everything was fine until the leisure battery ran out of juice! Even wearing layers and cuddling under the duvet we had a cold night. This particular mistake taught us that for winter camping we needed a diesel or gas heater, we also learnt that the hassle of putting an awning up and down wasn’t for us and that the freedom to travel where we wanted suited us very well.
Despite the lessons learnt, we were still really campervan rookies when just 18 months later we were buying a brand new Sundowner direct from Devon Conversion. Our knowledge had moved on, we were clearer about what we wanted and had a spreadsheet of essentials and nice-to-have features. We stayed with the reliable VW but this time picked a long-wheel base, needing a bigger loan on our mortgage! By now our plan for travelling for 12 months around Europe had begun to hatch and this ‘van was purchased with that trip in mind.
Our first trip in Blue Bus Two was a tour around Poland and the following year a campsite owner in France said, ‘You are the people in the Blue Bus,’ and the name stuck. We travelled 80,000 in our second campervan, from Poland to Portugal and Slovenia to Spain and we spent 678 nights sleeping in its comfy beds and living under its roof. So many memories are tied up with that ‘van, it is no surprise I wept the day we said goodbye to it! I hope whoever owns it now showers it with even half as much affection.
The Sundowner was only 5.3m long but its clever layout made great use of the small space, with no bathroom but a toilet. At the time having four travel seats was essential as our son and daughter-in-law often needed a lift and this limited our choice of layout. By the time we bought our third ‘van they were more independent meaning this wasn’t an issue and we could upgrade to a ‘proper’ ‘van with a bathroom.
We had taken the VW T5 as large as we could, so we had to look for a different base van for Blue Bus Three. Both of our VW campervans are still on the road somewhere, a testament to the reliability of the T4 and T5 and we always look out for them when we are on the road in the hope that we will have a reunion one day. The elegant shape of the VW limits what can be fitted inside, although there are conversions with bathrooms. After plenty of consideration and more lists we decided to move onto a French classic, the Renault Master.
By now, with ten years of living the campervanning dream under our belt we thought we knew what we were doing. We have nothing but praise for the conversions Devon produce at a reasonable price and we like dealing with a small converter that is willing to offer some flexibility on their standard layouts. Other converters were considered and we spent an exhausting day at one of the motorhome shows, climbing in and out of different ‘vans, sitting in them and talking to the sales people. We spent evenings pouring over a spreadsheet, considering the pros and cons of different options before deciding on a Devon Tempest. We were certain we didn’t want to go large and the Devon Tempest gave us a 5.4 m long ‘van with a layout we were confident we could live in.
Our Renault Master seems enormous to us. We have now owned it for five years and have been regularly grateful for the bathroom, but in 2020 it really came into its own. The Tempest was also our first experience of a side sofa with a view out of the sliding door, a feature that we really love. The big Renault sliding door lets the sun in and even on cooler days we can sit in the shelter of the ‘van and be cosy on the sofa.
A big part of the joy of owning a campervan is the people you meet on the road. During our year travelling around Europe we met many fantastic people, some of which have remained friends. Having owned two Devon Conversions campervans we have been a part of the Devon Motorhomes Owners Group on Facebook [and initially on Yahoo Groups] from the beginning. If you have a negative opinion of Facebook I don’t blame you, even the most harmless posts can unexpectedly veer off into a negative direction very quickly, but the Devon Owners group is a refreshing exception. Everyone is friendly, polite, helpful and the group makes having a Facebook account worthwhile. As well as virtual conversations, the Devon Owners generally have two or three meet ups a year, always sociable and fun occasions and thanks to our campervan we have made some good friends.
We have now spent over 600 nights in Blue Bus Three. It has had its problems but has taken us to Greece and Germany, Croatia and Shetland and we have no plans to change it. With the proposals to phase out diesel and petrol engines I wonder if Blue Bus Four will be all electric.
A hill walker’s paradise, the Écrins Mountains has an abundance of wildflowers, charming mountain villages and traditional houses, beautiful wall-painted sundials and so much more. It is fair to say it is one of my favourite parts of France. The mountains of the Écrins National Park top 4,000 m and, with no roads crossing the central peaks, accessing the unsurpassed mountain walking, the prettiest villages and flower-rich Alpine meadows often involves driving on minor roads that wind steeply up deep-cut valleys.
Below are some of my favourite walks in the Écrins, although I hope to return and discover more soon. The walks follow an anti-clockwise route around the central mountains, starting with the western valleys. The campsites we stayed at are listed at the end of the post.
La Chapelle-en-Valgaudemar is a small attractive village that nestles among the mountains and is reached from the N85 north of Gap. We stayed overnight at the campsite and woke to low cloud shrouding the mountains but it was dry as we set off walking from the village up the hillside to Les Portes.
The steep narrow path isn’t long [we were walking for about 45 minutes] but it crams in everything you would expect from a mountain walk into that short space. You will walk through green Alpine meadows, lush woodland and areas of rocky scree, see plenty of colourful wild flowers and have views across the valley and to higher mountains. It was early June when we visited and we identified many varieties of orchids as well as cranesbill, cowslips, globe flowers, tiny pansies and tall erect white asphodels.
At Portes des Oules we stood on the bridge looking down on the gushing waterfall as it rushed down a narrow gorge. The pretty hamlet at Portes des Oules has some houses with thatched roofs, their tall chimneys jutting into the sky, apparently to help prevent fires.
Embrun and The Foret Domaniale de Mont Guillaume
Turning left in Gap we took the road towards Embrun and found a pitch at Camping la Vieille Ferme which is conveniently located for the impressive rock-perched town. As dark descended, scops owls flew through the warm air, the quiet broken by their haunting calls.
We enjoyed a wonderful 14 km walk from here. After walking into the town and enjoying the views, admiring the old town and having coffee in one of the many cafes, we climbed the hillside along a narrow road and track towards Calayère. As we walked swallowtail butterflies followed us from flower to flower and a cuckoo called from the woodland. We climbed higher on the minor road to Le Chateau de Calayère where we rested and watched a couple of donkeys in a field and drank in the mountain panorama.
A delightful green lane surrounded by flower meadows took us into the La forêt domaniale de Mont-Guillaume where we picked up a steep narrow path back down the hill. In the afternoon heat the shady woodland was welcome as we followed the stream back to Embrun.
Mont Dauphin and the Marmots
Between Embrun and Briançon and below Mont Dauphin there is a marmot community and whenever we pass this way we stop to see these charming animals. Although being so accessible they are willing to tolerate humans to some extent, we try and treat them with respect and not cause alarm.
After dawdling along the short trail around the marmot area we drove up to the fortified town of Mont Dauphin which sits above the gorge with craggy escarpments on three sides. We crossed two moats and walked through the immense and complex defensive walls into the walled village. Built by Vauban at the end of the 17th century this is a remarkably well preserved group of buildings. The grid of streets are lined with pretty houses and from the walls the views along the valley are spectacular.
On a previous visit to Mont Dauphin we were camping near Guillestre and enjoyed a memorable walk from there that followed a stunning and airy path below the fortified village but high above the river.
Turn off the main road between Embrun and Briançon at L’Argentière-la-Bessée and follow the valley road for about 10 km to Vallouise. We have fond memories of the campsite at Vallouise when it was a municipal site. Now part of a chain it has lost some of the rustic charm it had but the village of Vallouise, with gorgeous houses, many decorated with ornate sundials and a central square, is still delightful. The village is named in homage to Louis XI, remembering that in the 15th century he briefly stopped the persecution of local people. There are lovely walks from the village but you might want to drive further up the valley for some spectacular mountain walking.
Pre de Madame Carle and the Glacier Noir path
It is a further 22 km or so from Vallouise to the end of the road and the large car park at Pre de Madame Carle but well worth the drive. From here there are a number of fantastic walks including the Glacier Noir. If you are looking for isolation, a bit of excitement and stunning scenery then this is your path.
At first the path zig-zags uphill but eventually you reach the narrow lateral moraine ridge that climbs steadily upwards on the north side of the glacier. We felt privileged to have this fantastic and airy route to ourselves. The path varies in width but is never more than a metre wide and sometimes narrower and the rock and gravel moraine slopes steeply down to the glacier on one side, while the other slope is grassier and less steep; this latter direction is the way to fall!
We walked among a dramatic landscape with dark crags around us and plenty of snow. The tranquility was only broken by the sound of occasional falling rocks. As we climbed higher we could hear the waterfalls at the head of the glacier. These thundered loudly periodically as if a sluice gate was being opened and closed. At first glance this appears to be a bleak and desolate landscape, but look closely and you will see tiny flowers surviving in the rocky moraine. I found a cluster of tiny forget-me-nots, bright pink primula and azaleas bushes which were not yet in flower. Marmots pottered confidently on the path in front of us, flicking their tails and moving quickly and easily on the steep terrain. Chamois crossed our paths and sat watching us from the banks of snow. This was heavenly.
Col du Lauteret
We have driven over the Col du Lauteret [2,057 m] on the splendid road among snow-capped mountains a number of times but only once stopped for a walk. From the col, the well-marked Sentier des Crevasses takes walkers straight into the high mountains as it traverses the valley side. This path is abundant with wild flowers, alpine choughs circle overhead and vultures soar. On the hillsides we heard the piercing alarm call of marmots and stopping to look we eventually spotted them on the hillside. The views from the narrow but easy to follow path across to the immense La Meije are spectacular.
Walking as far as the Belvedere viewpoint is easy. Beyond here the hillside becomes steeper and the rock more unstable.
Les Terraces, Chazelet, the Combe de Martignare and Notre Dame de la Roche chapel
Some of my favourite walks in the Écrins were completed from La Grave. This attractive village, beyond the Col du Lauteret, huddles along the steep-sided valley below La Meije. Its stone buildings and steep narrow streets ooze character. The Romanche river runs along the valley below the village and it is surrounded by stunning Alpine scenery. In the winter this is a popular skiing area.
A 12 km walk took us from La Grave to Les Terraces on a steep uphill path. Les Terraces is a quiet village perched high on the mountainside, where stone houses with balconies have an enviable view. Continuing on towards another sleepy village, Chazelet, we stopped to take in the views at the Oratoire de Chazelet, a stone shrine. The summit of La Meije was peeking out of the cloud, below us was to La Grave and I looked up at the circling griffon vultures knowing I wasn’t brave enough to walk far along the ‘walk of faith’ or Le Perchoir that has been built like a gang-plank from the sheer rock face. Chazelet is another picturesque village whose busiest season is winter. From the village we carried on to Les Plagnes and the Combe de Martignare that was a stunning sea of white with narcissi. Picking up a path back to Chazelet we descended the mountainside to the valley on a steep zig-zag path via the precariously sited Notre Dame de la Roche chapel.
Through mountain villages to L’Aiguillon at 2095m
The mountain villages of the Écrins are beautiful places to explore. Once again from La Grave we set off for Ventelon and on to Les Hieres. Beyond these villages the road became a track and we had excellent views looking up the valley. We reached the stone houses of Hameau de Valfoide where nothing disturbed the tranquility except a hare that lolloped across the lane in front of us.
After passing the Torrent le Maurian we were on a path that was initially steep until it reached grassland full of pheasant’s eyes daffodils and butterflies. It wasn’t far from here to the bench at L’Aiguillon at 2,095 m. We sat enjoying the views to La Meije, high enough to still be in the clouds, and below us in the valley was La Grave. We descended through more flower-rich meadows full of bird song, giving a wide berth to the large dog guarding the sheep [there are lots of signs about how to deal with these dogs]. Joining a road we walked back up hill to Lac du Pontet, a small mountain lake and followed a stream down to Villar d’Arene that is just off the main road. Here we found a cafe and enjoyed beers and ice-cream in a sunny square before crossing the Romanche and walking through lovely fragrant larch forest where the ground was soft underfoot with a carpet of pine needles. The path took us over a shoulder and then onto a track back to the campsite.
Le Bourg d’Arud, Venosc and Lac Lauvitel
Below the skiing resort of Les Deux Alpes and in the north of the Écrins is the village of Venosc. From the nearby campsite we spent a lovely day on another perfect Alpine walk.
It is worth taking time to explore Venosc, a delightful village that has a cable car up to Les Deux Alpes and is packed with shops selling crafts and bijou cafes.
From Venosc, we took a path that followed a clear river through woodland to the hamlet of La Danchère. Here we took the right-hand path up to Lac Lauvitel and into a floral paradise; there were so many wild flowers it was impossible to stop at them all. The stony path was relentlessly steep and at one cascade we had to scramble over a plug of snow. In the hot weather this was tiring work but worth it for the reward when we emerged at the blue lake surrounded by craggy mountains. Around us was an amazing natural rock garden that we wandered through to a meadow and the lakeside.
We descended on what would have been the left-hand path from La Danchère. This was equally steep!
Well done if you have kept reading this far, as I have saved my favourite walk to the last!
La Berarde and Refuge du Chatelleret at 2,232 m
The mountain village of La Berarde is about 20 km further along the narrow road from Venosc and is the end of the road. La Berarde is a small village with a couple of cafes and shops. We parked the Blue Bus here and under a cloudless sky walked 11 km to the Refuge du Chatelleret at 2,232 m and back.
The route starts steeply with zig-zags rising gently up the valley on a sandy path through low shrubs. As we climbed higher the path became stonier and there was less vegetation. We encountered lots of marmots, a few groups of chamois and so many butterflies.
Climbing steadily it took some time to reach the refuge, high in the valley and huddled underneath the massive of La Meije. In early June the refuge wasn’t open but the guardian was busy getting it ready for the summer season. The beauty of this valley is breathtaking. We sat in solitude, surrounded by craggy mountains and with magnificent views down the u-shaped valley to the twin peaks above La Berarde. Sitting in the sunshine we noticed a strange rainbow streak in the sky above one of these peaks. This was a cloud iridescence that lasted for about 30 minutes, moving and changing shape and fragmenting. An amazing phenomena I have never seen before. The descent was the same way and just as lovely the other way round. We stopped to refresh our feet in the cold water of the river on the way. What a fantastic hike and a great end to our time in the Écrins.
Although many walks are well-marked, we took walking maps and the Cicerone guide to Écrins National Park to help with planning and completing our walks.
A steep walk from the beautiful village & by the river, this is a grassy site with trees, clean facilities and flowers. The site is well maintained & has good views. The showers are roomy with very hot water, the wash up undercover. An all round excellent site.
The site has marked pitches, good views, a friendly welcome and a small shop where they sell morning bread. Facilities are in the basement & are clean and warm & the showers are hot & roomy. There is also a drying room.
This is a perfect cake for damp autumn afternoons. I have been experimenting with this recipe for a few weeks now, trying to make a cake that isn’t too sweet but is tasty. This means we have munched our way through some delicious but slightly fragile versions of this cake until I managed to get the ratios right so that we had something with enough robustness to be picked up. Here is the recipe I am sticking with …
90 g of brown sugar
100 g of margarine melted & cooled
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
50 ml of milk [I use soya milk]
Half of a 270 g jar of apple sauce [I use Lidl]
150 – 200 g of blueberries
190 g of plain flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons of cinnamon or mixed spice
Optional topping – 1 teaspoon of brown sugar with a tablespoon of lemon juice or apple juice and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon or mixed spice
Method – Put the blueberries in a small bowl and mix with 20 g of the brown sugar. In a large bowl beat the cooled melted margarine with the remaining 70 g of the sugar.
Add the vanilla essence, milk and apple sauce to the bowl and mix well.
Sift the flour with the baking powder and cinnamon or mixed spice and fold into the wet ingredients.
Carefully mix the sugar-coated blueberries into the cake mixture.
Grease your baking tin. I use a 6″ square tin but have tried muffin tins and loaf tins too.
I bake in the Remoska for about 40 – 45 minutes. Otherwise, bake at 180C [gas mark 4] for about 45 minutes or longer, depending on your oven and the tin you have used. A skewer should come out clean when the cake is cooked and your kitchen will smell warm and inviting!
Cool in the tin and while it is still warm you can coat the top with a mixture of sugar, cinnamon / mixed spice and juice for a slightly crunchy sweet topping.