December 2017. Winter Wonderwheels (Dorney Lake, Windsor, UK).
Due to the progression of my ataxia, this was to be my final fundraising “walk”.
And what a high note to end on.
I was invited to take part in the Celebrity Relay, with team captain, and Gold Medal winning Paralympian superstar, Susie Rodgers MBE. “Competing” alongside Jonnie Peacock, Adam Hills and a whole host of MBE/CBE-awarded Paralympians and Invictus Games heroes (basically, the great and the good in the UK disability field at the time).
Full details of my final fundraising “walk” at Winter Wonderwheels:
A stroll along the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur). From Monte-Carlo to Cannes.
My walk along the Côte d’Azur was unplanned, but *very* enjoyable.
I had arrived on the Côte d’Azur to visit a friend who lives in Cagnes-sur-Mer (near Nice), while the knee injury that I had sustained on my previous walk (along the Canal du Midi in south-west France) recovered.
As my knee (ligament damage only) actually felt better/looser when exercised, and as the French Riviera is absolutely beautiful and made for a very easy walk, I decided that a light walk might actually help my knee to recover.
Full details of my walk along the French Riviera:
A Walk Along the Canal du Midi (France).
Starting from Agde in the south-west of France (although the canal actually begins in Sète, the actual towpath which I would walk along begins in Agde), I walked as far as Carcassonne, before a knee injury caused by a wee fall meant that local transport was used for the remainder of the journey to Toulouse.
Full details of the Canal du Midi journey:
Isle of Arran Coastal Walk (Scotland).
This was to be my second attempt at walking around Arran (the first attempt being in 2016, just before my 500-mile walk in Spain). The overall goal that time was the same though:
I wanted to test my long-distance walking abilities, locally, before venturing further afield.
Full details of the Arran Walk:
Spain. 500 Mediterranean Miles.
My longest, and most ambitious, walk to date. 500 miles along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, from Girona in the north, to Murcia in the south.
Accommodation along the way was a mixture of couchsurfing (you really should try it!); and sleeping on deserted, moonlit Mediterranean beaches (absolutely beautiful).
From the start at Girona, I headed to the Mediterranean coast at Sant Feliu de Guixols. Where I turned right (south) and walked through the towns and resorts of Tossa de Mar, Lloret de Mar, Blanes, Malgrat de Mar, Calella, Arenys de Mar, Mataro, Badalona, Barcelona, Castelldefels, Sitges, Tarragona, Salou, Cambrils, Santa Barbara, Alcanar, Vinaros, Peniscola, Benicassim, Castellon de la Plana, Port de Sagunt, Valencia, Gandia, Denia, Calpe, Altea, Benidorm, Villajoyosa, Alicante and Elx/Elche before finally arriving at Murcia three months later.
Just some of the amazing people who supported me as I walked in Spain: https://www.facebook.com/kiltedwalker/posts/903551669778464
Lille was the final stop on my 2016 walking tour of European cities (all are detailed below). A tour that concluded with a sunny walk around the magnificent “Citadelle de Lille”, accompanied by my friend in Lille, the wonderful Emily Cooper.
Emily definitely deserves a special mention. Not only is she one of the most amazing couchsurfing hosts that I have met (she totally understands the concept) – she had also, completely unknown to me at the time, spent the week before my arrival contacting local media outlets in the Lille area, to inform them of the walk. And a rather successful effort it was too. After my walk, I found myself in the office of the chief of the local TV station – and an hour later, my ataxia t-shirt found itself (and its kilted wearer) in front of a TV camera in the central square in Lille.
Thanks to Emily’s efforts, the good people of Lille are now very ataxia-aware!
Whenever possible, I try to arrange walks to be in city parks – as this allows me to visit parts (beautiful parts) of a city, that I might otherwise miss.
Which is why I found myself walking through the very peaceful Parc du Cinquantenaire (Jubelpark) on a very quiet, and grey, Sunday morning.
This walk was only made possible thanks to the very generous support of the Silken Berlaymont Hotel.
Of all the city walks that were part of my 2016 European tour, this was the one walk that I was looking forward to the most, as it also meant meeting an old friend for the first time in 15 years. Shuna, who I had first met in Bristol in 2001, and her young son, walked with me around the stunning Vondelpark in central Amsterdam.
If you are visiting Amsterdam, this is definitely the place to take a blanket and picnic, and recharge your sightseeing batteries.
This walk was only made possible thanks to the very generous support of my couchsurfing host in Amsterdam, the extremely interesting WhatEdge.
This was to be a shorter walk through the City Park, than the one that was planned!
Sadly, I was a bit under the weather when I reached Ljubljana, suffering from a chest infection (nothing to do with my ataxia though).
A visit that was only made possible thanks to the very kind support of my couchsurfing hosts, Masa and her husband, who not only hosted me in Ljubljana, but also looked after me when I was feeling unwell. It’s never any fun being ill, but is especially worse when you are alone and so far from home.
Ljubljana, and Slovenia in general, is definitely a place worth seeing more of.
Although I didn’t actually walk in Trieste (it was just a stopping point between walks in Venice and Ljubljana), Luisa, Filppo and family deserve a special mention.
And for a very special reason (and one that became especially apparent during my future walk in Spain).
Trieste was the first time that I had met a family through Couchsurfing.
And parents take part for a very specific reason:
In a world where the media is constantly telling us to be wary of strangers (yes, there are a few bad people out there), the real danger is that we become so wary that we miss out on the truly positive influences that “strangers” can have on our lives.
In the main, people are “good”. But some are way more than just “good”. They are exceptional people. And I consider myself very lucky to have met some pretty amazing “strangers” through CouchSurfing. Meeting them (some of who are now good friends) has undoubtedly enriched my life (and I hope that I have enriched their lives too).
And there are a few parents who would rather that their children did not grow up with an irrational fear of strangers. And there is no safer place to introduce children to “strangers” than in the security, and familiarity, of their own home! With them knowing that their parents will keep them safe and happy.
Luisa and Filippo are just such parents. Their young son soon got over his initial shyness, brought on by having a rather tall, and kilt-wearing, stranger in his house, and within minutes was happily showing me all of the pictures that he had ever drawn (usually with the help of his artist father), and the games that he had made.
Wonderful, happy parents – bringing up wonderful, happy children!
And “A Bridge Too Far”.
Sadly, my planned walk around Venice never happened.
On a fairly even surface, I could walk OK-ish (after the first few metres had been negotiated). But steps, particularly steps down, are a real problem. I could still manage them (as there is usually some sort of handrail to hang onto). But it took a bit more time than before.
And in Venice, there are a lot of steps!
As you would expect, there are canals everywhere (which is why Venice is famous in the first place I suppose). And all of those canals have bridges. And all of those bridges have steps.
So, as it would take hours just to travel a fairly short distance, and as there was no handrail on the Rialto Bridge at the time (it was being renovated), I abandoned any idea of walking around Venice.
There is now a wheelchair-friendly gondola pier (allowing wheelchair users easy access to specially adapted gondolas). www.gondolas4all.com
So perhaps Venice is a future destination?
Raising awareness of ataxia, over and above fundraising for Ataxia UK, is my main aim with these walks (which is why there is always an open invitation to others, to join me as I walk).
It’s a great way to make others feel involved, which makes them very aware of ataxia.
And it’s a very pleasant way for people to see a part of a city that they might otherwise miss.
So, in Florence, I enjoyed the company of some pretty wonderful people, as I strolled around the Parco delle Cascine.
I like to think that I arrive somewhere with an open mind. Give a place a chance to impress me. But there is one place that I will never visit again.
Usually, a city will have a few different attractions. And as a result, visitors will be shared around different areas.
But in Pisa, there is just one attraction. And it draws huge crowds. And crowds that include some of the stupidest people on the planet.
That bloody tower (and the area around it)!
So after a pleasant Sunday morning walk around the river (Arno) in central Pisa, I made my way to the Leaning Tower.
But after just a cursory look at the tower (it is rather nice to look at I suppose), I ended up watching, and photographing, the herd of people taking that picture (the one where, an optical illusion, makes it look like they are holding the tower up).
But extremely entertaining nutters.
Travel Tip: After spending an hour at the Leaning Tower and the Plaza de Miracoles, you are free to explore the other delights of Pisa. Which are, err, not a lot really.
So, if you love crowds (of selfie-stick wavers), tourists being fleeced at every opportunity – and pretty average Italian food, then Pisa is definitely the place for you.
But if not, and if you have already booked your flight to Pisa, then head directly to the train station, buy a ticket to Parma, and enjoy an old Italian city which has been bypassed by mass tourism. Parma is, very rightly, famous for its ham and cheese. But the locally grown fruit & veg are pretty tasty too. Which makes for some of the most magnificent Italian food that you will ever eat. And in beautiful, and unhurried, surroundings.
Before arriving in Parma, I contacted a prospective host through the CouchSurfing website. Francesco responded to my request to stay with him and his family. But he wanted to make it clear that he was a journalist (as journalists are now viewed with suspicion by the CouchSurfing community, following a number of stories where journalists posed as guests – and described CouchSurfing as no more than a free bed for the night – yes, it is free, but it is a lot more – complete strangers sharing their lives). As a result of these stories, the CouchSurfing community has been swamped by people who are looking for no more than a cheap bed – with absolutely no interaction with their hosts.
If this sounds like you, hostels are cheap. And give you exactly what you are looking for.
However, Francesco uses CouchSurfing for the right reasons (he just happens to be a journalist too).
And we had a shared interest that connected us.
This was, in fact, my second visit to Parma. The first occasion was in the 1990’s, when I travelled there to watch Rangers being roundly beaten by a fantastic FC Parma team. A team that included the footballing genius of Hernan Crespo. Although much to the disappointment (or was it the relief?) of the Rangers fans who wanted to see him play, Crespo missed the match.
Francesco was at that game (he was a sports journalist at the time). He also travelled to Glasgow to cover the return fixture for the local newspaper in Parma (when I eventually did meet him in Parma, he was especially excited to show me his Ibrox “press pass”).
Francesco has now progressed within the ranks of the local newspaper, but for me, his being a journalist, was actually a bonus!
Prior to my arrival in Parma, he had arranged for another journalist at his newspaper, and a professional photographer, to meet me before I walked in Parco Ducale.
His wife, Antonella (who later fed me with the most amazing home cooking), joined me for a stroll around the park. We were also joined by Mattia (originally from Sardinia) who had only recently moved to Parma, and who was using this as an opportunity to meet some rather interesting locals.
After our thirst-inducing stroll, we sat down at the cafe in the centre of the park – and savoured some excellent coffee (Italians really do know how to make good coffee!).
Couchsurfing is not easy to arrange in Italy (Italian men use it as a way of meeting girls, so all single guys are now viewed with suspicion). Which is why I had failed to arrange somewhere to stay prior to my arrival in Milan. And last-minute hotel booking in Milan, on a Friday night, is seriously expensive.
And, again, it was football that I had to thank:
Mao owns a sports bar in Milan. And in 2007 Scotland played Italy at football. Originally, the game was scheduled to be played at the nearby San Siro stadium in Milan, but at the last minute, the Italian FA (being the a***holes that they are) decided to move the game.
In the farthest corner of Italy.
But not before a huge number of Scottish fans had bought flights to Milan though.
Those who could afford the time and money, simply travelled on to Bari. For the rest though, the only option was to find a bar in Milan which was showing the game on TV, and watch the game there. Not quite the same, admittedly, but it was still Italy.
And a good number of them ended up in Mao’s bar (Offside Sports Pub). So as soon as I told him that I was a former member of the Scotland Supporters Club, and that I would be wearing a rather fetching pink football shirt that the SSC had given me to thank me for years spent following Scotland around Europe (usually to watch them get beaten, sometimes humped), Mao instantly recalled the great times that he had spent in the company of rather happy Scots (people who had every reason to be unhappy – but people who knew the benefits of viewing life through a “glass-half-full”).
And the first day of the Cannes Film Festival.
Raising awareness of ataxia is so important, and is my main aim with these walks.
And that means attracting attention and publicity (which explains the kilt).
And there was one place, and on one specific date, where I just knew that there would be a million-and-one cameras.
And the red-carpeted opening ceremony on the first day of the Cannes Film Festival – when a serious number of A-List celebrities would be strutting their stuff for the cameras.
I was right about the number of cameras. But I was completely wrong if I thought that the photographers would be happy to fill their hours of waiting, by photographing some Scotsman wandering about wearing a kilt.
One photographer explained: “If any of the photographers [all of who were standing with their backs to the passing crowds – while holding on to their own mini-stepladders] were to turn round and take my photograph, when they turned back to their space, they would find it occupied by a rival photographer”. So nobody was letting go.
Not even when a rumour circulated that George Clooney was aboard a boat just off the beach (I did go down to the beach to see if I could catch a glimpse, but not even the zoom lens on my camera could breach the Clooney-security).
And anyway, I left long before the stars arrived. Even by 4pm, with over 3 hours to go, the crowd was unbearable. So knowing that crowds were now a no-no for me, I left. But not before I saw this (you just have to admire some people’s optimism/ingenuity):
A few months before the “Promenade des Anglais” became more famous for all the wrong reasons, for just a few hours it became the “Promenade des Ecossais” (well, in my mind anyway).
While waiting for other walkers to arrive before I started walking along the seafront Promenade, I got talking to a Scottish lady (from Glasgow) who was visiting Nice. And, as usual, it was my kilt which started the conversation.
We had only just started chatting when another Scotsman, but one who now lives out there, joined us for a chat, with the opening line of: “What’s this? Scotch Corner!”
Scottish people. They are bloody everywhere 🙂
A very special mention goes to Marie, my CouchSurfing host in Cagnes-sur-Mer*, for hosting me for a few days – which made my walks in Cannes and in Nice possible in the first place.
And I don’t want to sound like I’m banging on about it too much, but CouchSurfing really does bring you into contact with some pretty amazing people. I’ve yet to meet anyone via the CouchSurfing website who hasn’t been a positive influence on my life. But occasionally, I meet someone who is truly special. And Marie is one such person.
Marie spends her evenings distributing food to refugees and the homeless of Nice. Those unfortunate souls who are nothing but a sad reflection of this world we have created for ourselves.
On learning of Marie’s selfless work (about a year prior to my visit), a friend of Marie’s who is a baker, donated some leftover bread and cakes for Marie to distribute.
A year on, and this friend now bakes a special order for Marie. An order which Marie has to collect in huge bags.
I am not religious in the least, but there are definitely angels walking among us!
Humanity at its finest.
*Cagnes-sur-Mer is located on the Mediterranean coast, between Nice and Cannes, and was the destination of my first ever trip abroad, when I was just a spotty 19-year-old.
Paris was to be my first “walk” outside of the UK.
And having spent 7 years there, I knew of one walk (far from the usual tourist haunts) which was absolutely stunning in early May: The “Promenade Plantée” (or “Coulée Verte” as it is sometimes called). The pedestrian-only walkway runs along a former elevated railway line, which has now been transformed into a rather beautiful city-centre walkway with the planting of 1000’s of flowering plants. Go see it in the Spring.
And my walk in Paris just happened to coincide with the first, regular, closure of the Champs-Elysées to motorised traffic. After an earlier trial had proven to be so successful, the Paris authorities had decided that the lower section of the finest city-centre avenue in the world would be pedestrian-only on selected days.
My walk in Paris was only made possible thanks to the very kind and generous support of the Hotel Elysées 8.
[Paris when the Champs-Elysées is closed to traffic? Cannes on the first day of the film festival? Anyone might think that a wee bit of planning was involved in these “random” walks 😉 ].
London, where I was walking for the third time, was to be the first stop on my tour of European cities.
And, as on my previous two walks in London, I was accompanied by my sister-in-law Louise. Also walking with me along the south bank of the River Thames in central London, as he had in Hyde Park on my 50th birthday in January, was Tam Donnelly (a fellow Scot, now living in London, who organises the Ataxia-North-London branch). And Nico, an extremely likeable young Austrian, who had only recently arrived in the UK, and who was doing all that he could to meet new friends in the UK, and to improve his grasp of the English language. A young man who definitely has a very wise head on his shoulders.
My 50th Birthday Walk in Hyde Park, London (England).
Maybe not the way I had always thought I’d be celebrating my 50th birthday. But it was FUN. And it was definitely a day that I will always remember.
And it was f-f-f-freezing (as you would expect in January). Most definitely not kilt weather. But the weather gods were certainly in birthday-celebration mood too – because, on an otherwise cloudy day, the sun miraculously shone for the hour that we were walking.
Thank you for making my 50th Birthday so memorable guys!
The 2015 “City Bridges Challenge”. London (England).
Where it all started.
My first ever kilted walk. And the first ever “City Bridges Challenge” in London, organised by the super-supportive people at Ataxia UK.
A 6.3 mile guided walk by the River Thames in central London, attended by well over 100 people – and raising over £10,000 for Ataxia UK.
So successful, that Ataxia UK have now made it an annual event!
Sadly, we arrived just too late for the group shot.
As well as raising a fantastic amount, an enormous amount of ataxia awareness was raised too.
The sight of over 100 walkers, some in wheelchairs, all wearing matching white “ataxia” t-shirts, certainly got the central London tourist’s cameras clicking.