Bluebird day

The snow made a squeaky crunching sound under my boots. It was cold up here, and I kept wriggling my fingers to keep them from freezing in their ski gloves, but the sky was blue and we would soon be in the sun. All around me mountain peaks stood guard, single rock fingers pointing up, bulkier rock formations flanking these, snowcapped mountain tops and a large valley spreading downhill, funnelling into the distance until it would do a sharp left turn leading to the mountain village of Chamonix.  All around me were the Mont Maudit, the Aiguille du Midi, the Dent du Géant, the Grandes Jorasses and of course Mont Blanc itself. Names I had read about, seen on maps, but never seen like this.

Giorgio, our guide from the Courmayeur Alpine Guides, was roping us up together for our snowshoe excursion. We were a mixed bunch, all brought here by the promise of seeing this incredibly beautiful corner of the world on a spectacular morning of snowshoeing. He told us that the day before, the weather had been all fogged in and bitterly cold when he had taken clients climbing, but he promised today would be a bluebird day. We had all convened at the cable car station in Entrèves in the valley below and taken the Skyway Monte Bianco to Punta Helbronner. And now we were ready for our snowshoeing trip in the Vallée Blanche.

I hadn’t planned on visiting Courmayeur, a famous Italian ski resort, had it not been for a work presentation that I had to give to a group there. At less than two hours drive away from Milan, I really had to wonder why I had not gone there earlier, and I jumped at the opportunity to do the presentation and add the weekend for some time in nature. Courmayeur is a typically pretty ski village, with one main street full of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and apparel shops. But nothing there is as beautiful and as breathtaking as the mountain ranges surrounding the village.

We were now all roped up together and Giorgio led us on a gentle uphill climb at an easy pace to test us out and see what our ability was. There were young couples in our group and an older couple, which made for differences in ability. He was pleased with our progress and decided to take us a bit further afield than he would otherwise do, given the weather was so good. He would take us towards the Aiguilles du Diable, the Grand Capucin and the Col Maudit.

Walking in snow shoes may look easy, but you do have to get used to them and when you’re roped up and you have someone in front of you who is struggling with balance, you can find yourself doing some interesting balancing exercises yourself to stay on your feet. At one point the slope was becoming steeper descending into the valley and our guide slowed us down by making us do switchbacks, otherwise we would have all potentially slid down the hill in an unruly tumble.

Skiers would occasionally pass us, as they assessed the trail ahead of them, considering which way would offer the best descent for their abilities. You used to be able to ski down to Chamonix, but this year there was no snow in the village at all. Climate change is increasingly causing a decrease in snow and is destabilising glaciers in the area, particularly above the nearby village of Plampincieux, which was recently evacuated for fear of the glacier above being at the point of collapse. 

As we continued our hike the only sounds were those of our own breaths, the swishing sound of fabric and the crunch of the snow shoes on the packed snow. Everything was reduced to the experience of the natural world: white snow, brown and grey colours of granite towers around us, deep blue skies. I took deep breaths, finding myself tiring quickly – my condition wasn’t as good as I would like. I had a flu-like illness in early December that really knocked me around and I still coughed a lot and the cold mountain air wasn’t helping.

Every now and then Giorgio would pause, assess his charges and give us a moment to drink some water, before moving on again. Time became an abstract concept, how long had we been out here? I didn’t know and it didn’t seem to matter either. We finally arrived in the cirque; you could see the moat running along the outlines of the cirque, from where the granite towers rose. Above in the distance, blasted by winds so that wispy white filaments were trailing from it, was the summit of Mont Blanc. The scene had an ethereal quality and was so breathtakingly beautiful that it felt like we had been given a precious gift. One to behold and rejoice at and then leave it right where we found it for the next person to find it. Eventually, reluctantly, we turned our backs on Mont Blanc and the Col Maudit and returned in the direction we had come from.

At first we were walking on an even level, but eventually what had come down, must go up and we had to start ascending the hill that skiers were effortlessly and elegantly skiing down. No such elegance in our snowshoes; it was simply hard slog and for the slightly older ones amongst us (yes, that includes me), the going was slow, painfully slow. This was particularly felt by the younger ones roped up with us, who were getting impatient and started to try and overtake, causing more ropes to tangle. But we did get there and when we returned to the access point for Punta Helbronner, we enjoyed the view into the valley and towards Courmayeur first, before taking the snow shoes off and climbing up a steep ladder to reach the ramparts of the cable car building. I was astonished when I looked at my watch. I had been convinced we had been out there for much longer than we had signed up for, but only three hours had past from when we had gone up to Punta Helbronner. Time does fly when you’re having fun.




I find it’s often the places that are closest that you don’t end up visiting, thinking “I’ll do that one day; I’ve got time for that” and then ending up with no time and no visit. I wanted to avoid that with Bergamo, just an hour by train from Milan, as I had heard it is very beautiful and easy to visit in a couple of hours.

The key attraction of Bergamo is it’s Citta Alta, the “high” part of the city which features cobblestone streets, Venetian walls and a number of historical and notable buildings. There is a funicular that takes visitors up from the lower city to the upper city, but by the time I arrived there were long queues snaking out of the funicular building. To the left I saw a path and series of steps go up the hill, indicating a path to the upper city. It wasn’t very hard to walk uphill, although apparently the views from the funicular are very good.


Once in the upper city, it really doesn’t matter where you start your wanderings or in which direction. It’s not a big place and the real enjoyment lies in meandering at leisure through the streets and making new discoveries. My first stop was at Piazza Vecchia, where I had some lunch after finishing the sightseeing of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and the Capella Colleoni. Both are beautiful buildings and splendidly decorated, particularly on the inside.


From there I walked through the city’s streets, past small artisan shops (cannoli anyone?!) until I popped out on the other side. I headed towards the Venetian walls and followed them back close to where I started from. After the obligatory gelato I walked to the Rocca di Bergamo from where you have great views over the Citta Alta and the surrounding mountains.


I didn’t even get to do any of the museums this time, but there is always time for that, right…?


Trieste and Murano


You plan ahead for a long weekend, book train tickets and hotels, pay everything in advance and then you get sick a few days before. I was not exactly in sightseeing form, but was determined not to lose what I had organised and so I went, with a pared back expectation of what I would be able to cram into three days. More rest than running around.

Trieste is on the other side, the eastern side, of Italy and so this trip started with a four-hour train trip from Milan to Trieste on the Friday night. From the station I made my way to L’Albero Nascosto, which is a very nice small, boutique hotel with every room filled with beautiful antique furniture, giving it a very authentic and cosy feel.


The next morning, after the rain had stopped and I had indulged in a great breakfast, I walked around the city, which has a very manageable size. I headed uphill first to the Cattedrale di San Giusto Martire, that is home to some beautiful mosaics and had a distinctly Byzantine feel about it, mixed in with Roman arches. The church was being prepared for a wedding, with guests milling outside, so I didn’t linger and left them to their vows.

I descended a series of steps that led down from the Cattedrale with views over Trieste to arrive in the centre of the city. I had a coffee on the Canal Grande (not to be confused with that of Venice) and then made my way to the Piazza Unita d’Italia, famous for its expansive views over the Gulf of Trieste. I had already seen the night before when I arrived that the piazza’s famous views were blocked by temporary constructions for the Barcolana. Again incredible how my timing always hits these events and not a Coldiretti event this time, but a boat race. Still it’s a beautiful rectangular square and, having to take it easy, I settled in for some lunch at the Caffe degli Specchi, one of the grand old coffee houses lining the Piazza. And there I sat and watched the citizens of Trieste go about their Saturday business.


The next morning was dry and I headed out before dawn to have a chance to photograph Piazza Unita d’Italia at sunrise, capturing the buildings in soft light, which was definitely worth it. A walk down the Molo Audace, one of the main piers of the city also gave an opportunity to shoot some seascapes and afterwards slowly watch the city waking up and coming to life. It’s always a struggle to get out of bed before dawn, but I’ve never once regretted doing it because the light is just the best at that time.


After breakfast I checked out of the hotel and explored the local Eataly before heading to the station to catch the train to Venice, which takes a leisurely two hours. From the St Lucia station I took the vaporetto to the island of Murano where I had booked into a private apartment for the night. I arrived just on dusk and after settling in, headed out in the chilly wind to find an aperitivo nearby and walk along the atmospheric canals.


The next morning I was up at dawn again to explore Murano before the arrival of tourists and to get my bearings on where I wanted to go for glass shopping. In the 13th century all Venetian glass workers were forced to move to Murano due to the risk of fires. Since then, Murano is known for its glass blowing and these days a lot of tourists visit the island. But in the early morning it is still quiet, with only a few people about and a cat who was seeking to get back into its home and was visibly getting irritated when the window remained shut, despite the lights being on at home. Not happy, Jan.


I was keen to buy some glass from Murano as a memento of this time in Italy. I had in mind a set of coloured wine glasses perhaps or a nice vase. When I started seeing the prices for individual wine glasses, I quickly switched the objective to a vase! And I found mine at Archimede Seguso, one of the old masters of Venetian glass blowing (so well captured in John Behrendt’s City of Angels). Buyers beware, you might initially be captivated by something small and affordable and find yourself walking away with something much grander and obviously far more expensive! But I do love the vase I got and it is made in the colour of the Venetian lagoon, and changes pending on how the light falls on it.


I spent hours walking through Murano and eventually took the vaporetto that goes the long way around to the station to sit and relax and see some parts of Venice that I had not seen before. Another two and a half hour train trip took me back to Milan and reality, but I had managed to pull off my long weekend away, despite not being 100% health wise.