Category Archives: Walking and Hiking

Lake Orta’s Walk of Silence & Meditation

It’s not a walk around Lake Orta, but rather a walk around the small Isola San Giulio (St. Julius’s island) a short boat ride from the town of the same name on the lake.  I have to confess it’s not up there with Jo’s Monday Walk, as it takes no more than ten minutes to walk around the entire island.  That said, I spent forty minutes on the walk as I stopped often to listen to the sounds and to think about the words printed on plaques high up on the walls in phrases like “Listen to the silence” and “The Walls are in your Mind”.

The Silent Way (2)

Lake Orta is one of the prettiest lakes in Northern Italy, as far from the touristy Lake Como as it’s possible to be, and San Giulio is possibly the prettiest town on the lake.   It is named after St. Giulio who is credited with expelling snakes and dragons from the island when he arrived in 390 AD (via a raft miraculously made from his cloak) in order that he could build his 100th church there.  The Basilica one sees today is dedicated to him and was built on that same site in the ninth century.

View of San Giulio island from hill - photo Solange Hando
Isola San Giulio taken from a hill opposite by Solange Hando

Today as one approaches the island, one sees a cluster of buildings built right at the edge of the water, private residences now but once the homes of priests who lived on the island.  Inside this ring of villas is the basilica and a Benedictine Abbey where 70 nuns dedicate themselves to silent contemplation and prayer.  In a world without words, they go about their work of repairing ecclesiastical garments.

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The entrance to the area is through a small arched doorway at the top of a set of stone steps and once through this one is faced with the Romanesque basilica which contains a feast of frescoes and sculpture.

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Sometimes called The Way of Silence, other times The Walk of Meditation, it is a cobble-stoned alleyway that circles the island, enclosed by towering grey stone walls topped with green ferny plants that reach for the sky.  From the walls project ornamental signs in four languages, one side of which instructs you to listen out for particular sounds while the other side lays down inspirational advice –  ‘Listen to the water, the wind, your steps’.

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My interest was in the walk, however, so I didn’t spend much time in the church but hurried outside to the cool path that curved around the island, shaded by the buildings on one side and the outer wall of the monastery grounds on the other.  There were visitors aplenty on the walk, most observing silence, but there were pockets of noise from one or two groups who didn’t keep to the spirit of the place.  There was no discernible movement behind the windows overlooking the path so no doubt the nuns are used to a certain amount of noise.

I completed the loop in about 20 minutes by meandering rather slowly and absorbing the ambience. There are no benches or seats along the way on which to rest which seems a pity, not because I felt tired, but because I felt it would have added to the experience to be able to sit and meditate for a few minutes in these very special surroundings.

The-Silent-Walk

Having reached the end, I turned and walked back along the “Way of Meditation” in order to read the words from the other side of the plaques: then I exited through the arched door to board the boat that would take me back to the town of San Giulio for a much-needed café e gelato!

Part-of-the-Silent-Walk

Before I left the island I sat on a boulder overlooking the sea and listened to the silence, a silence only slightly disturbed by the lapping of the waves, the wind sighing in the trees and in the distance, the phut-phut of a motor-boat.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit here as dawn broke over the lake and the mist rose from the shoreline opposite.  The nuns sing Matins every day at 4.30 and in my mind I heard the sound of music drifting from the Abbey as day broke, and I promised myself that I would return one day to experience this moment.

There are a few rooms available and the Abbey welcomes visitors seeking a retreat from the world.

The round-trip fare is 5.50 Euros and the boats shuttle across the bay all day.

 

Plaque on Silent Way

End-of-Silenjt-Walk
The Exit from the Walk of Silence

 

BIRD WATCHING IN MALAGA

I never thought I’d find myself on a bird-watching walk as although I’m fond of all feathered creatures, spending time in their contemplation is not something that I ever imagined I would do on holiday.  Yet on my recent trip to Malaga with SilverSpain.com I became just as enthusiastic as any died-in-the-wool bird-watcher when I joined the walk through the wetlands of the Desembocdura del Guadalhorce Natural Park.

The name is quite a mouthful (it means river mouth of the Guadalhorce), but the simplicity of the place, the peace and tranquillity to be found just 20 Km. outside the city was something I hadn’t expected: nor had I expected the series of lagoons or man-make lakes, beautiful in the light of the setting sun.  I had always imagined wetlands to be marshy, boggy areas, with tufted grasses being the main feature of the landscape.

How wrong I was.  This area of five permanent lakes populated with fish and eels, supports a variety of plants that enjoy the presence of water and salt, the banks yielding tamarisks, giant reeds and rushes, with here and there scattered poplars.

SilverSpain.com had organized an expert in the field to guide us on the walk, Luis Alberto Rodriguez from BIRDAYTRIP.  Luis was just perfect both in the pace he set and in his ability to spot birds before we did.  SilverSpain.com had found someone who embraced their concept of the over-55s living an active life, enjoying varied and interesting activities often outside their comfort zone, and his enthusiasm for the area and its inhabitants infected us all.

Silver Spain - Birdwatching 2

The area is one of the most important stopover places for coastal migratory birds in the province and it is said that you can spot any bird at the river mouth during the passage periods.  The Guadalhorce river estuary is on one of the main Mediterranean-crossing routes between Europe and Africa but there is no sure way to guarantee what birds you are likely to see as much depends on winds, storms, rains, predators – and our old friend, climate change.

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The snowy plover breeds in the wetlands and at different times of the year you will see glossy ibis, flamingo, spoonbill, black stork, Caspian tern and coots.  Present all year are the endangered white-headed ducks which have been successfully breeding in the estuary since 2003, little egrets, grey herons, Kentish plovers, hoopoes (above), and Cetti’s warblers.  In summer the bitterns, Audouin’s Gulls and bee-eaters are welcome visitors and in winter the short-eared owl puts in an appearance.  Ospreys, kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks wheel in the sky and the marsh harrier can often be seen among the reeds.

Of 350 bird species that have been recorded in Andalucia, 260 have been spotted in this Rio Guadalhorce Nature Reserve which covers 67 hectares of prime wetland.  The Park’s five lagoons are backed by palm, willow, tamarisk, eucalyptus and poplar trees and in this woodland and by the lagoon’s edges five comfortable birding hides have been erected.

Silver Spain - river in Guadalahorce Natural Parque

The area is also a popular place for mountain-bikers, hikers and those just looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Malaga for a few hours.  Like these seasoned sportspeople, always make sure to carry water with you as there are no facilities nearby and you can de-hydrate quickly in the heat.  Depending on the season, an anti-mosquito repellent would also be a good idea.

MALAGA

This bird-watching walk was only one event organized by SilverSpain.com during the week in which we ate healthy, but delicious, meals in restaurants and hotels, visited bodegas and bars dating from 1840, watched an equestrian show, a flamenco show and had a session of mindfulness in a tranquil retreat.  Their website gives full details.

Walking in the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes Natural Park, Spain

In the Andalusian region of Spain alone, there are a total of 22 Natural Parks and 9 Biosphere Reserves, but few can beat the accessibility and beauty of the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes (also known as the Garganta del Chorro), located not far from Malaga on the Costa del Sol.  Just 50km northwest of that city and you are in another world.

Walking

This walk through the Gorge which is accessed from the village of Ardales is one of the activities on offer from a new company that is dedicated to helping the over 55s enjoy an active and healthy life, focusing on walking, exercising, a Mediterranean diet, and companionship.   The holidays organized by SilverSpain.com will be available from October of this year but I’ve been lucky enough to have had a taster of what’s on offer.  (Get Active & Healthy with Silver/Spain).

Walkway

Here in the 2,016 hectares of the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes, the Guadalhorce river has sliced through slabs of Jurassic limestone and dolomite to create a 3 km long gorge with sheer walls that tower up to more than 300 metres in places.   The Desfiladero de los Gaitanes is one of the most spectacular landscapes in the Subbetica mountains of Malaga famous for the Caminito del Rey, a vertigo-inducing, cliff hugging pathway, located some kilometres above the floor of the gorge and one of Malaga’s best attractions.

River-and-Cliffs

Your senses are assailed by the perfume from the rosemary,  thyme and fennel growing beneath the Aleppo pines, willow, eucalyptus, poplar and olive trees.  Overgrown pink and white oleander  vie with rock roses, yellow gorse and pink broom to colour the landscape, and closer to the river are rushes and reeds among which butterflies dance.

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Wheeling in the sky above the high gorge walls are golden eagles, kestrels, peregrines and griffon vultures, just a few of the wide variety of birds (nearly 150 known species) which nest here.  Smaller birds to look out for are red-billed choughs, crag martins, blue rock thrushes, owls, herons and crested tits, and in spring and summer the ubiquitous swifts make a return.

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Keeping an eye peeled, it is possible to spy rabbits, Iberian hares,  foxes, bobcats, and wild boars and it is said that Spanish ibex inhabit the gorge’s more inaccessible parts, so the shy animals are usually only seen by climbers.

Writing-on-cliff-faceIn addition to the massive slabs of limestone that form the walls, the river has carved caves and chasms in the gorge.  There are over 20 caves in the area, and in nearby Ardales, paleolithic rock art can be seen in more than 1,600 meters of galleries.

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But forget the history, the archaeology and the paleolithic past, and just enjoy the sheer beauty that surrounds you on this walk through the park.   The pathway is easy to negotiate (but perhaps not after heavy rains) but do wear sensible shoes.  Look around you, smell the forest scents, look above you to see if you can spy the golden eagles, and look down at the turquoise river flowing below and marvel at this natural landscape.

Bend-in-the-River

Afterwards stop off at Mesón la Posada del Conde for a meal of locally sourced items,         Restaurant_PosadadelConde (or you can reserve rooms here if you wish to spend a few days in the area) which you will enjoy with local wines. Their salads are huge and the ingredients so fresh that I would have been content with only this but I worked my way through some delicious plates of chicken, jamón, vegetables and dessert.  Another walk through the gorge was called for!

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Postscript:  Von Ryan’s Express  Starring Frank Sinatra and others, used the limestone gorge and the area around the Camineto del Rey to film the railway sequence at the film’s conclusion.  As Michael Caine would say, “Not many people know that”.

Caves