Discovering the Semois

Winding its way lazily for 210 kilometres, starting in Arlon in Belgium, arriving in France and changing its name to the Semoy before joining the Meuse at Monthermé , the Semois can charm most lovers of the great outdoors. Usually, the river has an optimal flow of water for safe canoeing and kayaking in early summer, but following substantial rain it is also becomes navigable in August and September. The area was more popular in the 60’s and 70’s before European visitors jetted off in search of more far flung pleasures. To me this is a benefit as the crowds have gone elsewhere, making the trip down the Semois very civilised indeed. There is still plenty of accommodation from hostels and camping sites to luxury hotels but on this trip we stayed with friends at their house.

The Semois
The Semois

Canoe and kayak hire locations can be found at numerous points along the course of the river. The operators will collect you and your boat at the end of your voyage or even take you upstream to commence your journey. The river is perfect for first time kayakers as there are no dangerous rapids and generally the water is slow moving. There are a number of weirs which can be avoided by beaching beforehand and carrying your boat past. We went over the weirs and had no adverse effects other than a bow wave that washed over the kayak’s prow soaking our legs. My camera, watch, phone, spare clothing, lunch, etc. were stowed in a waterproof barrel secured to the kayak.

Kayak on the Semois
Kayak on the Semois
Dragon flies and flowers
Dragon flies and flowers

Paddling downriver is not the only means of slow travel to explore the Semois. GR16 is a long distance trail that follows the river valley from Arlon to Monthermé, where it connects with GR12.
We hiked a section by Cugnon and made a deviation to visit the caves where Saint Remacle lived for a while in the seventh century while converting the Ardennes to Christianity.

Caves of St Remacle
Caves of St Remacle

GR 16 looks like an appealing project when we have finished our flirtation with GR 579 (Brussels – Liege) and GR 12 (Brussels – French Border), but there is still a lot of Semois river to paddle! That is the primary benefit of slow travel; there is always so much more to experience.

Rock stairs on GR 16
Rock stairs on GR 16

EU Cookie Law

CameraYou shouldn’t have failed to notice, that when you visit this site now you get a message regarding cookies and your privacy. This is to comply with the The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, that were amended in 2011 to change the requirement for individuals browsing websites. The amendment now requires individuals to give their consent for certain web tracking technologies to be used. The most common being cookies.

What are cookies?

Cookies are tiny files made up of numbers and text that are placed on an individual’s computer when surfing web sites. They are not used to put spyware, trojans or other nasties on your computer.  Other technologies are also used such as tiny transparent image files known as web beacons or bugs, Flash Cookies and HTML5 all store information on your computer. Over 90% of websites use cookies .

They are used to remember which individual is visiting the site by reading the cookie file stored on an individual’s computer. In nearly all cases the information stored in cookie is just a code that cannot be used to identify the individual visiting the site.

Are all cookies equal?

The simple answer is no. Some cookies are exempt from the law such as those used to remember to keep you logged in to a site or remember the items in your shopping basket. Others such as Google Analytics are used by webmasters to see how the site is visited, which pages are popular and unpopular, which sites they came from and which page they left from. This enables the site to be tweaked so that it caters for user’s needs. Finally there are the Performance Cookies. These are generally used to serve adverts such as GoogleAds but ever increasingly Social Media buttons, such as Facebook ‘Like’ buttons, Google ‘+1’ buttons and all of those ‘Share’ buttons.  These gather the most information and for the longest timescale. Without them them Facebook and other social media sites would have to change their business models.
In the process of assessing the cookies set by WordPress and its plugins, I learnt that there are some quite intrusive cookies set. I will be looking to eliminate these is possible. WordPress makes web publishing easy but the downside is that we have less control over the coding.

What should you do?

The best thing would be to read up more on the subject. You can’t know enough about internet security and privacy. Look at some of the social media provider’s Privacy and cookie policies. See if you are happy with what they are doing. Some sites have implemented a scheme that allows individuals to set the level of security that suits them on their site. So you can block cookies for advertising but this also means that the social media share buttons are disabled as well.

Take a look at Add Ons such as NoScript for Firefox which is very effective at blocking malicious code and if you trust a site then you can temporarily or permanently allow it to get full functionality.

What do you think?

You must have come across other sites taking action as a result of this European Directive, which ones impressed you? How much did you know about cookies before and how much has your understanding improved as a result of the implementation of the directive? What further information are you personally looking for?




Some thoughts about travel for Earth Day 2012

Today is Earth Day.

My personal wish for Earth Day is for transparent, understandable sustainability metrics introduced for the travel industry. It would allow me, or any other like minded consumer to assess the full ecological, cultural and socio-economic impact of our travel plans before we commit to buying. I am glad there are companies out there selling responsible travel. However, when some of these companies are pushed to supply carbon and water footprints, or the percentage of the travel spend that stays in the local community the information supplied is often lacking.
River and snow covered mountain

Some commentators, including some working in the responsible travel sector say that travel is a diverse complicated product and imply that it would be nearly impossible to produce metrics.

It would be wrong to say that it that the metrics are impossible to produce. I quote Clarke’s First and Second Laws:

Clarke’s First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Clarke’s Second Law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Arthur C Clarke

Like any scientific challenge the it is possible to calculate the figures. True, carbon and ecological footprints have not been calculated for every service and product. However, homes now have energy ratings. The apartment I am living in while on vacation in Chamonix has energy ratings displayed in traffic light format from A – G. The offset companies seem to have no problems working out carbon footprints, when they feel they can benefit financially. If one travel company set the standard, others would follow.  Why not start with some of the easily measured metrics like energy, water consumption and then move on to food? Assessing the carbon footprint of a flight is not difficult, just look at any carbon offsetting company’s websites for information. Ferry and cruise companies don’t publish their figures.  If their carbon footprint figures were good, wouldn’t they be using them to promote sales in the same was as railways and buses?

The task will be most difficult when carried out for the first time, but afterwards producing the metrics will be no more onerous than producing the annual report and accounts.

A good example of a carbon footprint study is SNCF’s study for the construction and operation of the TGV Rhin-Rhône line. It is an excellent case study that  clearly demonstrates how the carbon footprint is calculated for an extremely complex operation.  IC Hotels publish the average carbon footprint of their rooms in their CSR report. I expect to see more reporting like this in the future. Not only will it help consumers decide which travel products they will spend their money on, but it will be a massive driver for improvement across the industry.

Beware of the supermarket plastic bag distraction ploy, they make a massive show of phasing out single use plastic carrier bags.  The ecological footprint of a single use plastic bag is one thousandth of that of the goods that they carry. So millions of consumers feel they are making a big impact by using reusable carrier bags. I’m in agreement that they should be phased out, as they cause a catalogue of misery in the environment, but if we forget the other nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths, the impact is almost negligible. But the way we look at the “throwaway culture” may be changed far more significantly.  Phasing them out has benefited supermarkets financially, this was also a driver.

Likewise, some travel companies point to one aspect of their services giving it a huge significantce.  Of course it probably does make a difference, but is it just a thousandth of the total impact of that travel package?

Isn’t it about time we were all a bit more ambitious when setting our goals for the future, to make sure that we have one at least as good as the present? We need to look at the other nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths.  But to do that we need more facts we can relate to, as opposed to publicity stunts.

Food for thought.


World Water Day 2012

Just before Christmas 2011, there was a series of posts by Travel Bloggers on the theme “Travel Bloggers Give Back”. I’m not sure what they take in the first place. That aside, anyone who has scanned through these posts will find the water plays a big role. My favourite type of water is in the form of snow crystals, but water is way, way more important than that. We are comprised around 60% water. So this is my post in the same vein as “Travel Bloggers Give Back”, but if you know anything about me then you’ll realise that I don’t like riding on bandwagons, but prefer take the hard route and walk.Glass of water
Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Four was a programme I used to listen to before going to work. I remember one speaker relating the story of him giving a glass of water to a thirsty woman in Kenya. The woman took the glass and instead of drinking it immediately, she seemed to pause for reflection. Then it dawned upon the speaker that the woman was giving thanks to God for the glass of water. In the Developed World we don’t consider a glass of water to be precious. But it is. It seems likely that “Peak Water” has already gone. We sustain our present consumption by extracting water from aquifers that took thousands, sometimes millions to be filled. Glaciers are also retreating, they are another source of fresh water in summer. Even diminishing snowfall affects the water supply from the spring melts.
The real shocking thing is this; that something looked on as worthless and wasted by most of the developed world isn’t available to one in eight on our planet. This page of statistics gives an idea of the scale of the problem. I’ll add include one statistic from the page, namely that one child dies every twenty seconds due to diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation. That’s more than deaths due to AIDS, Malaria and Measles combined.
My favourite charity is WaterAid as it is dedicated to raising the issue of clean water and providing support and resources to give clean water and toilet facilities to those lacking these basic necessities.  They also run some pretty excellent campaigns such as providing water and toilets at music festivals like Glastonbury. They also organise the WaterAid200 event where they a team of 4 – 7 people on 200 mountains in the UK and Ireland between 11am and 3pm. This year’s event takes place on Saturday June 16. There are mountains left if you want to join a team. Each team must raise a minimum of £400.

You can obviously support WaterAid financially by direct donations or fund-raising. But now you can also support the WaterWorks campaign. Take a photo to demonstrate how important water and toilets are to you and upload it on the  WaterWorks site. The best photos will be used in presentations to World Leaders ahead of talks in Washington in April to discuss concerted action on water and sanitation.

A Welsh Day Trip in February

This is a short photo essay of part of a day trip to Llandudno and Anglesey on a Sunday in February. The first part of the day was spent walking around the Great Orme at Llandudno, but this post will concentrate on the afternoon spent in Anglesey. Crossing the Menai Straits on Stevenson’s Britannia Bridge we stopped for photos of his railway bridge and Telford’s Suspension bridge.

Menai bridge
One of Thomas Telford’s masterpieces

Telford’s bridge probably comes out in front in the elegance stakes, but I am impressed by Stevenson’s Britannia bridge. Originally a tubular rail bridge, it burnt down in the Seventies, to be recycled into both a rail and road bridge, using Stevenson’s original piers. Something sustainable in that approach appeals to me.

Brittania Bridge
Stevenson’s Britannia Bridge now carries road and rail traffic

On Anglesey we headed for Newborough Beach mainly because I hadn’t been there since I was a child. Back then it involved a trek across a track only passable in something like our farm Mk 1 Landrover. A TV programme on the geology of Llanddwyn Island had also stirred my interest.

Celtic cross on Llanddwyn
Newborough beach with Snowdonia in the background

Newborough beach is a expanse of clean sandy beach, behind which sand dunes and the red squirrel inhabited Newborough Forest rise up majestically. Walking North we came to the island and read the information panel on both the island’s significance as a place of pilgrimage and the Pre Cambrian geology. Then venturing onto the island passing the well used by lovers to check on the fidelity of their lovers, we came to a Celtic Cross. This is one of two crosses commemorating St Dwynwen on the Island. Llanddwyn and St Dynwen's Cross Her original cross can be found inland from the old lighthouse. The lighthouse was where a lot of the filming for “Half light” starring Demi Moore was filmed. The island also supplies locations for some scenes from the 2009 “Clash of the Titans” movie.

Pony on Llanddwyn
Pony on Llanddwyn

Llandwyn Island was Wales’ first bird reserve and the Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The isle is grazed by ponies and sheep which maintains its present look.

Further reading for a Welsh Day Trip

This post is a companion post to Ynys Llanddwyn a place of pilgrimage for Welsh Lovers on the VisitBritain SuperBlog. Ynys Llanddwyn on Wikipedia.

Discovering Evasion Mont Blanc and evasive buses

One of the added bonuses of a Chamonix Season Lift Pass, is the chance to discover three other winter resorts in Haute-Savoie. The next big winter station down the valley is  Evasion Mont Blanc, a series of linked resorts including St Gervais, Megeve, Combloux and La Giettaz. In all 445 km of pistes. This is a photo essay of Evasion Mont Blanc. The photos are all from the ski area, not the story of the journey there and back. If you are not interested in bus journeys that don’t turn out as planned, just skip the text and enjoy the photos. I will be submitting this post for #MonPics on Twitter as they were all taken this weekend.

At the booking office in Chamonix, I booked a return bus ticket to Megeve, leaving Chamonix station at 7am the following day. Unfortunately the girl who issued my ticket got a lot of things wrong, as I would find out as the discovery day progressed.

Panorama from Mont Joux
Panorama from Mont Joux

Amazingly, I managed to get up at 6am and drag myself to the station for 6h45. Boarding the bus for Chamonix, I was told that I’d have to change at Le Fayet which sounded reasonable, as the destination matrix on the bus indicated that it was bound for Geneva Airport.  The bus departed on time and 5 minutes later, stopped at the Bus Stop outside my apartment. I could have saved a 15 minute walk if only I’d asked!

Piste with Mont Blanc backdrop
Piste with Mont Blanc backdrop

Arriving at Le Fayet, the lady in the ticket office pointed out that there was no service to Megeve on Saturdays. I asked if the bus passed the Télécabine at St Gervais and was told no. She explained that I could get there though. So unconcerned, I boarded the 8h30 bus to Les Contamines. At St Gervais I caught the free ski bus to the lift. I presented my documentation at the cash desk and my  pass was activated for Evasion Mont Blanc, or so I thought.

Mont Blanc from Mont Joux
Mont Blanc from Mont Joux

I boarded the lift and started exploring the area. It was bitterly cold with tiny ice crystals floating in the air and glistening in the sun like diamonds. Certainly no hidden gems that day. Up on the top of the mountains the view over the cloud filled valleys was magnificent.

Mont Blanc from Mont Arbois
Mont Blanc from Mont Arbois

Throughout the day, I stopped more than is usual for me, to get some photos of the views. Many had Mont Blanc and the rest of the peak of the Mont Blanc Massif as a backdrop, but the Aravis and other mountain chains also figured. From here the lofty heights of the summit of Mont Blanc can be appreciated more than in Chamonix, where the closer, lower peaks look much taller  from the bottom of the Chamonix Valley.

Moguls at Megeve
Moguls at Megeve

Managing to time my lunch with my arrival at Megeve, so that I could eat it on the resort ski bus, I made my way to Jaillet.  At Jaillet Télécabine, the electronic pass reader rejected my pass and so I enquired at the cash desk about what the problem was. The cashier informed me that my pass had only been activated for the St Gervais ski area. She could do nothing about it as a different lift company operated this sector of Evasion Mont Blanc. I chose to return to Megeve and keep exploring the St Gervais area.

Mont Blanc from Mont Arbois
Mont Blanc from Mont Arbois

After a day of riding, I caught the 17h30 bus back to Le Fayet. This was exactly the time the bus to Chamonix called at Le Fayet. I managed by catching the train to Chamonix,  but had to pay 5.10 euros for a train ticket. Sometimes though, travel plans going wrong don’t spoil your day, or am I just speaking for myself?

There are more photos of Evasion Mont Blanc (minus Combloux and La Giettaz obviously) in the gallery. Some are 3D anaglyphs requiring Red / Cyan glasses to appreciate the 3D. Click on the thumbnails to see a larger photo size.


Deserted beaches, an ancient settlement and islands

This photo essay accompanies my latest post for the Visit Britain Superblog. “In the footsteps of Monty Halls on North Uist“. The Udal Peninsula was one of Monty Halls favourite spots in the Uists in Scotland’s magnificent Western Isles.

View from Udal Peninsula across Harris Sound

View across Harris Sound to the mountainous Isle of Harris.


A boat moored a long way from the nearest habitation.

Pebbles on beach somewhere near elusive cross on wall

Pebbles on the beach near the elusive “Cross on the wall”.

Good sign. Yellow moss on rock

Yellow moss apparently only grows in unpolluted environments.

Ancient wheelhouse

One of the best examples of a wheelhouse in North Uist. This spot was occupied for over 5000 years.

Crop or wild flowers?

Never managed to find out if these were grown as a crop or were natural. They completely covered a crofter’s field.

All photos by author.


On the Tintin trail in Brussels

While walking the streets of Brussels, I am often aware that I am following in the footsteps of Georges Rémi, better known as Hergé, creator of Tintin. From where I type this article, I can see both of the schools he attended in his youth. He left his mark in the form of murals at both schools. One when he was a Boy Scout and the other when he was an accomplished author / illustrator. They are not available for viewing by the public, but Brussels has lots of other Tintin related works that are accessible to all.Information panel for Tintin trail inParc de Bruxelles

VisitBrussels publish a map that folds down to credit card size; “In the footsteps of the little reporter – Sized for Tintin”. It retails for 0.50 Euros and is available from the Information Offices. The trail starts in the Parc de Bruxelles where a temporary information panel explains that the park was the inspiration for the drawings in King Ottokar’s Sceptre. It then continues on around the centre of Brussels highlighting sights that provided inspiration for the Tintin stories, murals featuring Herge’s work, the Tintin shop and the Belgian Comic Strip Centre.  It also includes the Hergé / Tintin locations outside the centre of Brussels, including his birthplace and tomb.

Hergé's birthplace

Compared to Tintin, Hergé didn’t travel extensively. He used the work of photographers who had recorded scenes from the locations in his books, as the basis of his drawings. He also researched the locations thoroughly.  National Geographic was a favoured source. He drew the planes, trains, automobiles that interested him from life. Even the rocket that Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy take to the moon, was inspired by the V1 test rockets developed by the Germans in the Second World War, then used by the American Space Programme after the war.
Hergé mural Stockel

Brussels provided much of the inspiration in the cartoon strips. Exhibits from the Musée Cinquantenaire and Royal Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren appear in many of his stories. In 2009 Grand Place was the venue for the World’s largest Comic Strip, when a page from Objective Moon filled most of the square. It was so large that you had to climb up on a viewing platform to appreciate it.

Part of largest Tintin in Grand Place 2009
When Spielberg made his animated movie, he remained true to the books and original locations that inspired them. The film starts in place Jeu de Balle, in the Marolles quarter of Brussels, where Tintin gets his portrait drawn by Hergé, before finding the Unicorn on sale.  The flea market is is still held every morning. When I went out with my camera, I didn’t find the Unicorn, but I did come across a trawler. Perhaps it was a clue pointing towards the reason why all the fish are disappearing from the world’s oceans. Tintin the young Belgian Reporter, would have loved to expose that story.

Not the Unicorn, Flea Market, Marolles
Not the Unicorn, Flea Market, Marolles

Exploring Brussels’ Winter Wonders

It is the overhead snippets of conversation, that tells me that Winter Wonders or Plaisirs d’Hiver in French, is popular with visitors. “I was like…” the repeated “like” in twenty something females’ conversations. The oral version of a Facebook Wall. Or “I am lucky, as I can catch a train and be here in less than two hours” uttered by a fifty something male, identifies them as having English as a first language. You will often find English spoken in conversations in Brussels, but away from the main visitor attractions. It is a common means of communication between speakers whose first language is differs, such as between the Flemish and the Finnish.So having established that the Winter Wonders attracts lots of travellers from outside Belgium, let me give a brief overview of what is on offer. The event opened on the last Saturday in November and runs until January 1st.

Christmas Market at place Sainte Catherine, Brussel
Starting from Central Station, head towards the Bourse and you should find a blue trailer (caravan in UK), this is the Information Centre for the Winter Wonders Festival. I suggest you pick up the Winter Wonders brochure / map published before proceeding. Notice the smell of Brussels waffles and mulled wine from the nearby stalls and perhaps listen to the musicians on the corner.

There is an abundance food stalls around the Bourse. I tried some Vin Chaud (Mulled Wine) from the Belgian wines stand, but there is abundant alternative warming drinks on offer nearby. If you are visiting Brussels for the first time, you could sample a Geuze at Á la Becasse or Le Cirio, which are both very close to here.

Steam Punk Roundabout
Across the other side of Boulevard Anspach,  light frame human figures float over rue Paul Devaux. These are “Les Voyageurs de Cédric Le Borgne” which have toured the world for about five years. A night their wire framed bodies are illuminated like ghosts watching the revellers at Winter Wonders.

Continuing on to Place Sainte Catherine you will probably encounter the Greek Zone, in the small square by the entrance to Saint Catherine’s church. Here a number of stalls sell Greek produce under the lines of blue and white flags. Greece is the guest of honour at this year’s festival, last year it was Morocco.  You will also find the first of the two Steam Punk carousels by Andrea’s Magic roundabouts.

You will need to walk to the centre of Place Saint Catherine to find the second children’s roundabout. You will find most of the Christmas Market stalls here as well as more refreshment stands. The Big Wheel is the most striking feature  found at the opposite end of the square to the Church forms a striking backdrop.  The Ice Skating Rink is one of the most popular attractions is in front of the wheel. There is also the perennial Ice Monster, which I find tempting me to enter its opening and closing mouth. Shame it is for children, but I’ll go looking for my Ice Monsters in Chamonix. The children’s sledding run for children is also found down this end.
Piste groomer, Brussels
From 10 December until 25 December snow will hide the street of Mont Des Arts and the only way down will be on skis or a snowboard.  The surprise for me when I visited yesterday was seeing a piste groomer  and a team of men building a magic carpet ski uplift.

Finally, the attraction marked number one on the Winter Wonders brochure is Electrabel Nights.  Using environmentally sensitive technology, light is projected onto the Hotel de Ville and all over Grand Place, while beams reach up into the sky in time with classical music, but look out for an orchestra and choir performing AI.  Even the Christmas Tree lights are synchronised with the music. Don’t leave without taking a look at the realistic Nativity Scene in the full size stable.

A personal reflection on flags for #FriFotos

The theme for the photo sharing day on Twitter on Friday 18 November 2011 was Flags. If you look at my Twitter profile you will see that I tend to spend time between three locations. In this piece, I will include photos, including flags from each of these places.
Welsh flag at Llangollen
Starting with my birthplace. This photo was taken while looking for new angles to take photographs from. The castle on the skyline is Dinas Bran. It was built by the Welsh sometime in the 1260’s but fell to King Edward 1 of England.

Belgian flag
Taken while at Fete de la Musique in place des Palais. This photo was used by the Belgian French language Radio and TV broadcaster to illustrate how far Belgium was from forming a government. Belgium went to the polls on 13 June 2010 and didn’t agree on a workable coalition until 11 October this year. The country now holds the world record for the time taken to form a democratically elected government. The article can be found here. You may need to use Google Translate. They did accredit me as the copyright holder but did not link to my Flickr page or give me a link back, but I was humbled to have it included.

French flag at Chamonix
Finally a photo of the French Flag from outside the Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne (PGHM), Chamonix’s High Moutain Police. They operate a professional mountain rescue service. I end up at Chamonix at some time each winter, even if I don’t always spend the season there. I for one am glad that these brave policemen are there to rescue anyone in distress high in the Alps. The memorial plaque outside is sobering, as it records a the death of at least one policeman each year for nearly all the time it has been in existence.

Not a breakfast cereal.