Island of Ponza, Italy
As fate would have it, I arrived back in my tiny Venice apartment on 8 March, the day the city was locked down. Since then, restrictions have become increasingly – and rightly – more stringent, so today I can only go 200 metres outside, apart from a trip to the shops. Luckily I have a great view over the city from my rooftop terrace. From there, I can sit and dream of places I’ll revisit when I have the chance. Top of the list is the tiny island of Ponza, 20 miles off the west coast between Rome and Naples in the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea. Getting there is no easy task, but with minimum carbon footprint, I enjoyed a memorable journey: a scenic train ride across Italy from my home in Venice down to Formia, boarding an antiquated ferry, then slowly chugging into Ponza’s harbour, a mass of bobbing boats surrounded by rising tiers of pastel-coloured houses, as the setting sun lit up the sky in a blaze of colours.
Everyone in the main town seems to offer genuine family B&B accommodation, and our host, Gino Pesce, also had the perfect name for his fish restaurant, Acqua Pazza (crazy water). Sitting down for dinner, a fisherman walked in carrying a crate of wriggling giant red prawns, the speciality of these waters. Simply cooked by Gino’s mamma in a rich tomato and olive sauce, they were served on a bed of homemade tagliatelle, and I have honestly never tasted anything so fresh, so succulent.
Each day is a different adventure on this wild volcanic island that is five miles long and never more than a mile and a half wide. There is hardly a car to be seen, and while hiring a bike is fun, the roads are hilly and very windy, so mostly we set off on the excellent local bus and then hiked through the mountainous countryside, where steep paths along brilliant white, jagged cliffs lead down to idyllic narrow inlets and hidden bays. The best experience was going out for the day with a fisherman, mooring in a deserted creek with not another soul in sight, then plunging into the crystal clear water surrounded by shoals of multicoloured fish.
Ponza is invaded in July and August, so I dream of going back there when flowers are budding in springtime or when the vineyards are ready for harvest in autumn.
John Brunton, Venice
Els Ports de Beseit, Aragon, Spain
I mostly work from home, so in many ways the lockdown has affected me less than others but, like most homeworkers, I need to get out for some exercise. Mostly I walk, and that’s what I crave right now, a long walk in wild countryside. And if I could choose one place, it would be Els Ports de Beseit.
Els Ports is a range of limestone hills and canyons that straddles the border between Aragon and Catalonia. My favourite walk is El Parrizal de Beseit, a 20km round trip up the gorge carved out by the Matarranya River.
There is a harsh, almost forbidding beauty about the place, like much of Aragon, a part of Spain I’ve always been a bit in love with, where delightful villages appear in the midst of inhospitable landscape or on inaccessible mountain tops.
The walk begins at the village of Beseit and follows the course of the Matarranya. It starts out flat but gradually you are funnelled upwards into the narrowing gorge, the river rushing and gurgling alongside the whole way. The sense of scale is so vast it feels like Colorado or Arizona.
Wooden bridges cross the river, and in places there are walkways fixed to the side of the gorge. It’s not a tough walk – I’ve done it with children – but this is real wilderness; wander off and you might never find your way back. And it’s tough enough to feel you deserve a plunge into the deep, green pool that awaits near the end of the journey.
The water is always shockingly cold, even in August, but right now, mothballed at home and restless as a rattlesnake, I can think of nothing more satisfying than throwing myself into the cold, dark waters of the Matarranya.
Stephen Burgen, Barcelona
Goriška Brda, Slovenia
There is a sun-soaked corner in the far west of Slovenia, where Hemingway set A Farewell to Arms and where the border was drawn with Italy after the first world war. Goriška Brda is Slovenia’s cradle of wine. It is actually a cluster of many tiny villages embowered by the Alps to the north and the Adriatic to the south, each photogenically situated upon soft-rolled hilltops and flysch soil, with a unique terroir that has been named one of the best in the world for white wine.
I was there last summer to participate in a professional wine tasting. The Rebula Masterclass is an annual event held at the elegant palace of Vila Vipolže, an elegant palace, that brings together nearly 100 of the world’s leading wine professionals to sample an indigenous wine varietal of international renown. Rebula grapes (called ribolla gialla a few paces away in Italy) produce an umami, mineral white that has the complexity of a red.
Or so I was told. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was the only novice at the masterclass, seated between the editor of a wine magazine and the oenologist of a Chilean winery. I wasn’t even sure what the ominous-looking black buckets were for (spittoons). But the wines were wonderful. All 15 of them. Before lunch. My favourite was Rebula Journey from the Medot vineyard, which is the family estate of Zvonimir Simčič, a local and wine world legend.
Simčič set up Klet Brda here, the largest winery in former Yugoslavia, which still produces millions of bottles a year. It is thanks to him that Goriška Brda rose from an idyllic but impoverished region to international prominence for wine of the highest quality. It is where in-the-know locals and tourists come for lavish but low-key wine tastings, an ideal wine trail off the beaten track. In these quarantine days, I fondly remember that masterclass, the sun pouring through those buttery rebulas, and I look forward to revisiting Slovenia’s land of the golden wine when circumstances allow. In the meantime, I think I’ll open a bottle at home …
Noah Charney, Kamnik
This Ardennes town has been a popular destination for people hoping to improve their health for more than 600 years. It’s a place this 21st-century British resident of Belgium would like to revisit.
Belgium closed its schools, bars and restaurants on 16 March. This was followed two days later with a decision to close all stores other than chemists and food shops. We were told to stay at home as much as possible and to limit our use of public transport. All of which means that the 80 miles separating Brussels from Spa, in the French-speaking east of the country, now feels a very long way. Prosecco and strawberries at the hilltop thermal baths, always beautiful, now seems as distant a prospect as lobster in Manhattan’s Grand Central Oyster Bar. The Belgian town’s eccentric museum of laundry (Musée de la lessive) almost acquires the remote glamour of The Met.
Spa is easy to love. The mineral water baths are surrounded by spectacular countryside walks. La Tonnellerie, right next to the funicular up the steep central hill, will give you a cosy room and excellent food. It’s a sleepy provincial spot, with few if any big-name chain shops, where many restaurants close early in the evening. I’ve made the easy train trip from Brussels with my husband many times, when we needed a physical or psychological pick-me-up. Next time we’ll take our toddler daughter, Marianne, to try the open-air pools and woodland.
The Belgian town of Spa gave its name to all subsequent spa resorts. Henry VIII’s physician was a fan. Agatha Christie wrote that Hercule Poirot was a native. Right now, it’s just a place I want to be able to visit.
Emily Waterfield, Brussels
Lac de Derborence, Valais, Switzerland
First it was the schools and the ski resorts, then shops, restaurants and bars in Switzerland closed on 16 March, before public gatherings of more than five people were banned four days later. Since then I’ve mostly stayed home, missing the mountains where I’ve had so many adventures in the seven years I’ve lived here.
Back in 2013, I’d only recently moved to Switzerland and was desperate to explore. It was a beautiful August weekend, and a savvy Swiss friend had recommended a hike to a remote cabin in the Valais. Which is how my boyfriend and I came to be on a post bus winding its way up a narrow mountain road from Sion, blasting its tuneful horn – as singsong as the Swiss-German accent – while passing through tunnels carved out of the rock, a sheer drop-off to our left.
The destination was well worth my nail biting: Derborence lake, a pristine pocket of still water reflecting lush woodland and high peaks. This was the starting point for a challenging hike of five hours – more, for us, due to my less than Swiss fitness level – through meadows strewn with wildflowers, a vast glacial valley, a boulder field and large patches of snow as we trekked ever higher. This being my first visit to a Swiss Alpine Club hut, I didn’t know that reaching them usually means tackling a final, punishingly steep ascent just when you think the end’s in sight. So it was with Cabane Rambert, our home for the night, strategically placed at 2,580 metres for the best view of the Valais Alps, Mont Blanc and beyond.
As though we’d stumbled into a village restaurant, rather than a high-alpine cabin hours from civilisation, the place was packed. We chatted with other hikers over a three-course dinner, diced with death to use the toilet – a wooden shack positioned over a long drop – and endured the sub-zero night air to spot shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower.
When morning came, we lingered in bright sunshine above the clouds, watching ibex grazing nearby. I captured that moment on camera and in my mind – the perfect memory of what was the best introduction to the country that is now my home.
Caroline Bishop, Zinal
Schools in Athens closed on 11 March. Over the past two weeks, life has ground to a halt. Since Monday 23 March, we are on full lockdown.
In a world that is irrevocably changed, we all long for the unchanged. The comfort of a familiar place steeped in memories. For me, that place is Skyros — an out-of-the-way Greek island where I have spent every long, hot summer since the age of five, when my parents bought a tiny stable in the hilltop village.
From the vine-shaded hammock on our terrace, you can see a tumble of roofs and a haze of receding hills, a solitary chapel or cypress tree. Every so often, a jangling trail of sheep plods across the horizon. Stray cats curl up under the jasmine or stretch out on the low, whitewashed wall where we drink coffee, write postcards, sketch, or toast the sunset with Camparis.
At night, we throw rag rugs over that wall and our friends perch with plates of baked chickpeas, garlicky red peppers, and crisp triangles of cheesy filo on their laps. Friends who come from Athens, Berkeley, Copenhagen, Basel, London, New York, Lugano, Toronto, and Paris to relive the same simple rituals year after year. A far-flung community that has grown up and grown old together. Every summer, there might be a new baby, grandchild, or boyfriend; a divorce; a death. But the presence of those who are gone is all around, etched into our collective memory like the whitewash that outlines the paving stones in the village lanes. And the delicate caper blossoms that emerge miraculously from dry stone walls remind us that life goes on.
My apartment in Athens is not much bigger than our one-room home on Skyros. Our balcony barely has enough space for two folding chairs, and our limited view is of the interior lives of our neighbours. Like moths drawn to light, they too flit aimlessly on their ledges, staring at empty streets at once familiar and foreign. Trapped inside with a young child, I dream of a different view – of sunlight dancing on vines and a distant speck of sea.
Rachel Howard, Athens
Colorado Provençal, Rustrel, France
Since France went into lockdown at midday on 17 March, everyone in my family has been fighting to walk Rio. The latest restriction is that we can only go outside if walking a dog or for urgent supplies, so we are longing to run free in the countryside again.
Ten kilometres north-east of Apt, surrounded by lavender fields and fruit orchards, is the Colorado Provençal, a dramatic landscape of ochre quarries where I’d like to be right now. More than 20 different shades of ochre were extracted at the site from the 17th century until the early 1990s, leaving a 30-hectare park of spectacular geometric and wind-eroded outcrops and canyons.
The last time we went was in summer. We followed the Sahara pathway past soaring orange pinnacles, red pools beneath ruby and green cliff faces and cheminées des fées (fairy chimneys, which are also known as hoodoos). It began raining, and all the different pigments ran down the earth, flooding into amber-coloured pools. The place is deceptively perilous; you have to stick to the paths or could easily plunge down a vermillion precipice or skid across an ivory and peach slope into a wilderness of broom bushes and pine trees.
The surrounding villages have their food specialities: Banon has goat’s milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and spindly cured sausages called brindilles, which they sell in metre-long poster tubes; Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt is famous for its black cherries; Simiane-la-Rotonde for lavender cordial and chunky, mint-flavoured meringues. Apt is the world capital of crystallised fruit. The selection makes for a quirky picnic, but then Rustrel is the closest you can get to lunch on Mars.
When the rain stopped, the turmeric-coloured powder turned to gold on my children’s hands, and what had appeared brick-red from the roadside, left my cream chinos with a tie-dye of copper and bronze. Meanwhile, our white dog, Rio, who has spent most of his life being told to get off sofas, down from beds and out from behind cushions, leapt unscolded on to the back seat of the car shaking out his new coat of russet and purple and pink.
Jon Bryant, Nice
Serra da Estrela, Portugal
It has been nearly two weeks since we closed the door on the outside world and hunkered down at home. As a keen runner, the fact that Portugal’s emergency measures permit – for now – a brief daily run is helping keep my spirits up. I’ve been going out alone, running along the empty streets in our downtown neighbourhood in Porto.
Grateful as I am, pad-padding along the tarmac is still not a patch on trail running. Boy, how I miss the feel of earth underfoot and big skies above. If I could transport myself anywhere right now, I’d flee the city and make a beeline for the isolated delights of Serra da Estrela.
Located bang in the centre of Portugal, this sprawling, mountainous natural park is home to frothing rivers and majestic waterfalls, berry-fattened boars and all-seeing eagles. I went for a two-day bimble this time last year with my friend Patrick. A local contact cobbled together a zigzagging 90km route for us, from Seia on the park’s western edge to Covilhã on the east.
For 36 sweaty, muscle-aching, blissful hours, we barely saw a soul. Fifteen minutes out of Seia and we were deep in classic mountain country; narrow dirt tracks, perfume-packed pine woods, the rustling of animals in the undergrowth. The ever-shifting, always-sloping landscape kept our legs in motion and our mouths agape. From arboreal foothills, we climbed up to bare, boulder-strewn plateaux, before plunging back down to shaded valleys below.
The highlight came on the morning of the second day, as we wove our way slowly up the glacial Zêzere valley, before eventually joining a hairpin road for a final, lung-bursting assault on Torre, the highest point in mainland Portugal. The ache in my legs, the wind on my face, the world at our feet: would that I were there right now.
Oliver Balch, Porto
Nationalpark Sächsische Schweiz, Germany
Since Germany imposed social restrictions a week or so ago – tightening them even more on the 23 March – my activities have been more or less limited to my apartment and the increasingly empty streets around me for shopping and running. Although we don’t have a complete lockdown like those in Spain and Italy, it’s difficult not to start dreaming about an escape.
Germany offers plenty of possibilities for a daunting dash. From the Black Forest in the south to the Baltic Sea a couple of hours north of Berlin, there are a wealth of “schöne ecken” (beautiful corners or spots), some obvious, some hidden. But if I had to choose right now, it would be a personal favourite: the Nationalpark Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland national park), which is as famous for needing a few schnapps to pronounce it, as it is for its natural beauty.
The park is located east of Dresden, right on the Czech border, and is contiguous with the Bohemian Switzerland national park on the other side. Getting there by train, car or bike from Berlin – I’ve done all three – involves meeting and following the Elbe to one of the entry points; the pretty towns of Pirna or Bad Schandau, for example. Watching the river calmly wind its way north always makes me slowly exhale.
I usually walk a section or two of the park’s Malerweg or “painter’s trail”, named after its origins as a destination for the many romantic artists – Caspar David Friedrich included – who sought inspiration here. It’s easy to see why they did so. An amalgam of undulating sandstone peaks, lush forests and moss-covered ravines, parts of it are utterly spectacular, not least the famous Bastei Bridge, which looks out across the wide, dreamy expanses of the Elbe valley.
It’s usually packed with tourists here as it’s accessible by bus, but the rest of the trail is usually not heavily trafficked at all, especially the further you push into the park. The eight Malerweg trail stages are 10-15km long, some pretty easy-going, others quite challenging, and all weaving between quaint villages that offer overnight stays and restaurants with traditional fare like schnitzel and spätzle. They all have something of interest, from Richard Wagner memorials, old castles and medieval fortifications, to caves, grottos and even health spas. It’s really like entering another world.
Paul Sullivan, Berlin
Näset beach, Sweden
Sweden has taken a different tack from the rest of Europe, preferring to keep primary schools open and not declare a lockdown. But public gatherings of more than 500 people are banned, teaching in secondary schools and universities has moved online, and people are urged to work from home. Stricter measures are in the pipeline.
All this would be hard enough for Swedes to live with without the approach of that magical last weekend in March, when the clocks go forward. It is no exaggeration to say that we live for this moment. Suddenly the evenings seem endless, just like the possibilities of the summer ahead. Our hibernation is over. The daylight is like a drug.
For me, normality will return to Sweden only when I can grab a towel and a sandwich to go people-watching on the crowded beach at Näset, on Gothenburg’s south-west coast. Here on a summer’s evening, diverse crowds of local people gather, jostling good-naturedly to find a patch of shade or sun.
The smell of barbecues mingles with smoke from shishas and cigarettes. Kids in burkinis play with kids in bikinis, grandmas are slicing watermelon, and everyone splashes about in the sparkling clear sea. Towards the evening, there is a shiver of anticipation as the boomboxes come out.
Näset beach sums up for me everything that is welcome in the new, multicultural Sweden, which tends to get a bad press. Here I feel a shared and conscious thrill at being part of this extraordinary melting pot. As a foreigner, and one who misses London’s big mix, I feel very much at home.
David Crouch, Gothenburg
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