Climbing to the Top of Mont St Michel, Normandy

Mont St Michel

As we caught our first glimpse of Mont St Michel, I recall being quite awestruck. It was certainly impressive as it rose into the sky just off the coast of Normandy but I remember questioning whether we would be able to reach the abbey at the very crest of the mount. Indeed, we opted to catch the bus transfer to the island rather than walk from the parking area so that we could conserve our energy for the climb ahead.

I don’t quite know what I expected from Mont St Michel. I thought it would be less accessible than it turned out to be and I knew that it would be very touristy but I certainly didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.

Mont St Michel (2)

The walk to the city and island of Mont St Michel was pleasant enough but it certainly wasn’t pretty. That will soon change because a multi-million Euro project is nearing completion in which the ecosystem of the surrounding salt marshes will be restored and a single road bridge will connect the island to mainland Normandy. At the moment, the island isn’t truly an island and the road to the island seems to be embedded into the marshland.

Mont St Michel (3)

Once we arrived at the island, we walked through a series of gates and arches until we emerged into what looked to me liked a French medieval market scene within the island fortifications. Given my love of castles and the medieval period, it is safe to say that I was immediately smitten and I might have taken one or two photos of the narrow walkways between the stone and wood frames buildings.

Mont St Michel (4)

I won’t mislead you, Mont St Michel is indeed a very popular destination and there were many tourists, travellers and visitors jostling to navigate the tiny little passages. There are many shops selling trinkets and souvenirs along the way and many of the restaurants serve a similar fare of fluffy omelettes, crêpes and galettes (a regional savoury pancake). But like with many popular destinations, Mont St Michel is popular for a reason and I was quite fascinated by the gothic abbey, medieval buildings and marshland regeneration project.

Mont St Michel (5)

We stopped for lunch in a crêperie located just off the main thoroughfare. We sat in the sun but soon learned that bright sunshine does little to remove the chill of a mid-April day in France. I ate a galettes avec jambon et fromage (cheese and ham savoury pancake) and I had a sweet Grand Marnier crêpe for dessert. I was most disappointed that they did not light my pancake up in the way that Grand Marnier pancakes are usually served but I suspect the wind and bright sunshine would have somewhat lessened that effect anyway.

Mont St Michel (6)

Mont St Michel (7)

After lunch, we continued our walk to the Mont St Michel Abbey at the top of the island. As we emerged from the main shopping and commercial area, the path became quite beautiful. There was a lot of greenery and fantastic views of the surrounding salt marshes can be seen over the island’s fortifications.

Mont St Michel (8)

Soon we came to some very steep steps and we began our ascent to the very top of the abbey. As I mentioned, the entire climb from sea level to the top was easier than I thought. We did meet a lady at the top who was walking with the help of crutches, having left her walker near the base of the abbey. She had made it that far but did express concern about climbing too many more stairs within the abbey.

Mont St Michel (9)

Finally we reached the entrance to the abbey. If I love castles or fortifications and the medieval period, it is safe to say that I adore gothic architecture. I was quite entranced by the spires, turrets and arches of the abbey and was quite thrilled that I could just make out the golden statue of St Michael atop the tallest spire.

Mont St Michel (10)

Mont St Michel (11)

Mont St Michel (12)

Mont St Michel (13)

We decided to take a tour of the abbey and sat for a while on the roof outside the classic facade of the abbey which was built following a fire in 1776. In the photo below, you can see how the classic styled facade contrasts with the gothic architecture of the rest of the abbey.

Mont St Michel (15)

The tour was very rewarding but certainly warrants an entire post. Instead I will leave you with a view of the salt marsh surrounding the island of Mont St Michel with the island of Tombelaine in the distance. Mont St Michel was once called Mont Tombe and Tombelaine might either mean ‘little mount’ or the tomb of St Helene.

Mont St Michel (14)

Mont St Michel was certainly one of my most surprising destinations. I think that Novi Sad in Serbia might have been my most surprising destination of all but I’ve written a lot about being surprised by Serbia and I’m heading back there soon.

Confronting My Fear of Heights at Orlando Towers

Orlando Towers Johannesburg

Sometimes fear creeps up on you. Nothing specific happened to make me afraid of heights but all of a sudden it was there.

I first noticed it when Stephen jumped off the highest commercial bungee jump in the world at Bloukrans Bridge, in the Western Cape in 2003. The jump takes place from a platform under the arch of the bridge and the surface of the platform is made from some sort of chicken wire or other holey metal. I could see straight through it to the valley below and I practically crawled to the centre of the platform, holding on desperately to the sides. Out of the blue I was acutely aware that I was terrified of heights, in a most physical and immediate way. This was not helped in any way when Stephen bungeed off the bridge and promptly disappeared behind the perspective of the rope. I honestly thought I’d lost him for a moment!

When my fear of heights overcomes me, my whole world tilts sideways; I become dizzy and I can't think straight.  I don't mean to be contrary but no, Sartre, it has nothing to do with wanting to jump and knowing I have the freedom to do so. Psychologically I'm not afraid but the rapid heartbeat and inability to breathe make my brain think I'm afraid.

The fear continued to grow once I moved to the UK. We had an open flat roof at my previous office and showing contractors around was a challenge in itself as I couldn't go near the edges. My first time in the London Eye was okay, just as long as I didn't look down because when I did, it felt as if the capsule had tilted on its axis.

What would you do if you had a dire fear of heights?

Well, I jumped free fall off a 100 metre high tower. That’s right, take another look at the photo at the top of this post because I jumped off that! See – that tiny dot in the photo below is me.

Power swinging from Orlando Towers

If you’re thinking I’m crazy right now and possibly a little reckless, then it is probably best that I explain just how right you might be. See, I had always loved the look of the Orlando Towers near Soweto in Johannesburg but there was no way on this earth that I was going to bungee jump from the towers or base jump into them. No, that was just too dangerous.

But then I visited the Orlando Towers website and noticed that you can power swing from the towers! Marvellous, I thought, I’ll do that!

I was also convinced that ‘power swing’ meant foofy slide or what you might know as a zip-line or flying fox

In other words, I was thoroughly convinced that I was going to take a rather tame and safe slide down the sides of the Orlando Towers and I remained under that delusion until after I had paid my R360 over to the nice lady and signed an indemnity acknowledging that I could very possibly jump to my death that day.

So what happened next?

Emm in Johannesburg

I began to look very, very worried. Please excuse the photo, I’m evidently not one of those people who manages to look glamorous as I walk to my death when travelling. You’ll notice that the man behind me was looking equally nervous as he pulled on his bungee harness.

The lift up Orlando Towers

We then clamoured into a lift that took the most torturously slow ride up the eastern tower.

Power Swinging from Orlando Towers, Soweto

I took a moment at the top to admire the views. It felt like you could see forever from on top of those towers and it was simply fabulous. I also graciously let several people go before me, good mannered person that I am.

This photo was taken at about the moment when I realised that unlike the bungee jumpers who are fitted with a massive attachment to the bottom of their legs as well as a harness, I was simply going to be fitted with a single rope attached by two clips to my harness.

Nervous laughter at Orlando Towers

Cue nervous laughter.

There was a rather tense moment when I kind of refused to step towards the edge of the platform and was politely reminded that if I turned back now, I would lose all my money. That didn’t work and so my chief torturer pictured above politely told me to “get your sh*t together”. Oh yes he did!

I don’t actually remember jumping off. As far as I can remember, I crouched down and dangled one foot in the air and then sort of fell forward.

And then I fell and fell and fell with my eyes squeezed shut for I had signed up to a free fall from a 100 metre tower, the kind of free fall that only becomes a swing once the very, very long rope gains traction from a point suspended between the two towers. And so as I continued to fall, I forced myself to hold on to the rope, to open my eyes and to enjoy myself. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it was exhilarating. Mostly, I was trying not to wet my pants, but once I got down to the bottom all I wanted was to go right back up to the top and try it again!

Orlando Towers Soweto

Would I recommend it? Absolutely, 100%. With the current exchange rate, R360 is about £20 and you’d be crazy not to try it.

Would I do it again? Yes. I would definitely like to give it another try and to try not to be so terrified this time because I really was that scared.

Did it cure me of my fear of heights? Sort of. It gave me the chance to replace my fears with memories of an exhilarating, exciting and triumphant experience. Of course, it doesn’t always work. I went on the London Eye the other day and purposefully looked straight down and had to sit down for a couple of minutes to compose myself!

Orlando Towers, Soweto
Dynamo Street cnr Old Potch Road
Phone: +27 71 674-4343

Have you ever done anything completely crazy but been too silly or shy or stubborn to turn back?

Must See: 'Experiencing Nirvana' Exhibition at Proud Camden

Experiencing Nirvana Exhibition Proud Camden

February 1994: I can remember it as clear as day. I was just at the end of a 9-month post-university stint in the UK and was on my back to embark on post-grad studies in South Africa when Nirvana announced tour dates in England for March 1994. Such was my love for the band that I almost cancelled my flight home (and my post-grad studies) in order to remain in the UK to catch one of their concerts. In the grand scheme of things, it would not have ended up being the craziest thing I did to see a band live but I’m eternally thankful that I made the decision to go home. By early March 1994, we knew that something was amiss when Cobain overdosed in Rome and went into a coma; one month later he was gone.

A couple of weeks ago, Melissa and I went along to the launch of the Experiencing Nirvana photography exhibition at Proud Camden. The exhibition features the works of Charles Peterson and Steve Double who photographed the band from the release of Bleach in 1989 right up to the beginning of 1994.

Experiencing Nirvana Exhibition

The photographs were simply incredible. I loved the mix of studio photos, promo shots and concert photos and it broke my heart at times to see how young they all looked. I was especially interested to see how the early photos featured Chad Channing who was replaced by Dave Grohl in 1990.

Experiencing Nirvana Proud Camden

The exhibition is highly recommended for fans of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. You can purchase limited edition, signed prints of the photos and I have to admit that I was tempted. The exhibition coincides with the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s untimely death and it runs until 11 May 2014. Entrance is free so be sure to stop by next time you’re at Camden Market!

Experiencing Nirvana Exhibition Proud

Proud Camden
The Horse Hospital, Chalk Farm Road NW1 8AH
Telephone: 020 7482 3867
Opening times: Mon-Fri : 11am – 5pm Sat: 11am – 4pm. Main Gallery closes at 4pm Sun: 11am - 5pm
Entrance: Free

Credit to © Steve Double and © Charles Peterson for the original works featured in these photos.

Eating Out in Bosnia: The Best Meals of My Life

I know, it’s not Tuesday but when life gave me lemons this week, I had to turn them into Lemsip to treat a change-of-season cold that suddenly appeared. Speaking of food, this week I am joining Emma, Rebecca and Kelly on their monthly travel link up. We’re talking about the best meals we had while travelling and I couldn’t think of a better reason to return to Bosnia! In a way, I’m pleased because I’m not a foodie blogger (I far prefer to eat food than write about it) but I had always wanted to share these culinary experiences.

Restaurant Šadrvan – Stari Grad, Mostar

Stari Grad, Mostar

I remember the Saturday afternoon we arrived in Mostar as if it were yesterday. I had seen so many photos of the old town but somehow remained unprepared for its beauty. The hostess of the Villa Anri encouraged us to enjoy drinks on the roof of the hotel but as we gazed down into the old town, we simply couldn’t wait to go and explore. We asked our hostess to recommend a restaurant with authentic Bosnian-Herzegovinian food and she wasted no time in recommending the Restaurant Šadrvan.

View from Sadrvan Restaurant Mostar

I will always remember that afternoon in Mostar. We sat under the shade of the trees in the Šadrvan restaurant, watching as people milled around the market stalls or began the steep incline towards the old bridge. It was a hot, lazy May afternoon with the temperatures already in the 30s yet there was an undercurrent of anticipation, as if we need only wait for the cool dusk to come and the evening festivities to begin.

Nacionalna Plate Sadrvan Restaurant Mostar

Located where Jusovina Street meets the main path through the old town, Šadrvan (meaning ‘fountain’) surrounds an old Ottoman-style fountain.

As I opened the menu and paged through the options, I had to laugh at the name of the dish that we were to order. Part of what attracted me to the Bosnian language in the first place was that so often, words are similar enough that you can derive their meaning; it’s just that words sound so much more lyrical in Bosnian. I ordered the ‘Nacionalna Plate’ for two and thrilled at the way in which the words rolled off my tongue.

The food of the Balkan region is well known for its variety of stuffed vegetables and this meal was no different. At €18, it was incredibly well-priced and included japraka and dolme – peppers, onions and vine leaves stuffed with rice and meat. The meal came with loads of ćevapi which are minced lamb sausages, small savoury corn bread cakes known as ‘Bosnian cookies’ and đuveč, a savoury vegetable dish. The dish was completed with flat bread, boiled potatoes, rice and sour cream.

Sadrvan Restaurant Mostar

I’ve often tried to describe the effect that this dish had on us but seem to fail each time. I can say that it was so good that it puts every other dish I have had since to shame. That my mouth is watering as I write and that I’d climb on a plane right now if I could to sample that piece of Bosnian heaven again. It was simply delicious and when we were looking for somewhere to eat the following afternoon, we could not help but return to the Šadrvan again to eat the exact same dish.

Bosnian Coffee Sadrvan Restaurant Mostar

It was also here that we sampled Bosnian coffee for the first time and began what would become quite an obsession over the following five days. As I tasted that first cup of sweet, rich coffee with its gravy-like consistency, I knew that I would never forget that moment. And no matter how I’d grown up with Turkish coffee, I now knew that Bosnian coffee was the best on the planet.

Restaurant Inat Kuča – Sarajevo

Restoran Inat Kuca - Sarajevo

After such an auspicious introduction to local cuisine, Stephen and I were initially disappointed with the food in Sarajevo. We had prepared ahead, consulted Trip Advisor and gone to the most popular restaurant in town and while the food was good and the service fantastic, it simply didn’t measure up to our experience in Mostar.

Thankfully, we met up with Kenan, a local tour guide and he recommended the Restaurant Inat Kuča for an authentic Bosnian experience.

Sarajevski Sahan Inat Kuca

I chose the dish Sarajevski Sahan and it did not disappoint. It was a mix of Bosnian specialties and again featured stuffed peppers, onions and vine leaves, as well as ćevapi and bamija which is a Bosnian veal stew. We noticed the slight change in the food from Mostar, which is in the Herzegovinian region, with the introduction of veal and stews.

Mjesano meso Inat Kuca Sarajevo

You might have noticed in the dishes above that Bosnians love their meat and so do South Africans! Stephen was in his element with the dish he ordered, a mješano meso or mixed meat for one. Yes, all of that meat was for one person and cost an incredible 20KM or €10! My dish cost 14KM or €7.

Menu - Inat Kuca Sarajevo

The story of the Inat Kuča or ‘house of despite’ is an incredible one. The house was once located on the other side of the river Miljacka but in 1895 city officials wanted to demolish it to make way for the new city hall. The old man who owned the house was very stubborn and insisted that they dismantle his house and rebuild it, brick for brick, on the other side of the river. And so it is now, slightly lost in translation, the house of spite or despite.

Restaurant Inat Kuca - Sarajevo

It is a little difficult to describe exactly why we loved this restaurant so much and what it meant to us. We had spent the morning touring Sarajevo with Kenan, learning about the siege, driving down Sniper Alley and visiting the Tunnel Museum. It was a lot to absorb and I can recall us being lost in our thoughts for a while as we relaxed and enjoyed the superb food. I would say that it was a moment in time, a sensory experience which is burned in my heart and my memory and I can so easily recall the quiet and calm of that afternoon, the importance to us and, of course, the tastes.

If you enjoyed this culinary tour of Bosnia, please be sure to visit the hosts Emma, Rebecca and Kelly of the monthly travel link up for more meals from around the world.

Because I was so late with this post, I will be back on Tuesday with a little bit of local London culture.