Monthly Archives: May 2017

Viking fire festival

Standing almost horizontal against gale-force winds and the kind of rain that makes you wish you’d spent your life savings on waterproofs, I begin to question my motives for visiting Shetland in January. I’m pressed up against a cold stone wall, counting down the minutes.

Suddenly all the streetlights are extinguished and the tiny town of Lerwick is plunged into darkness. Around me, the dances of sodden spectators trying to warm up regain some of their buoyancy as excitement rises. There’s only one reason thousands of people would come to the edge of the world in the dead of winter to stand outside, for hours, in the pitch black – the Up Helly Aa fire festival.

At 7.30pm on the dot, bright purple-orange flares crack through the din. The distant rooftops seem to blossom with fire as down on the streets below 1000 torches are lit for an army of as many men to march through the streets, led by a battle-clad and bearded band of Vikings known as the Jarl Squad. Flames dance off the winged helmet and shield of their leader, the Guizer Jarl, who commands a replica Viking longship which is wheeled at the head of the procession.

I’ve only been in this remote part of the world for a few days, but the whole thing feels utterly and undeniably Shetland.


A land fit for Vikings

This remote archipelago off the northeast coast of Scotland is part of the UK. But touching down here, after a journey of progressively smaller planes and progressively friendlier people, feels like landing somewhere very distinct from the rest of the British Isles. Indeed, the Shetland Islands are closer to Scandinavia than London, and Shetland was part of Norway until it was sold to the Scots in the 15th century.

This is a land awash with Norse heritage, evidence of which is rife in the capital of Lerwick. It’s not just in the street names (kings of yore, from Harald to Haakon, can be found at nearly every turn) or the Scandinavian twang in the accent. The whole place screams Viking. Big, moody skies loom over a patchwork of resilient stone buildings and rugged landscapes, battered by unforgiving weather that can steal your breath and soak your bones – it’s brilliant, but bracing.

Shetland has its everyday rhythms – farmers tend to their land and livestock, local business owners open shop and those on a nine-to-five head into the office. But there is the inescapable sense that Mother Nature rules the roost here. Big storms and rough seas can still cut the archipelago off from the mainland, as one local explains: ‘if the boats can’t come in, no one can get anything’.

A classic Cuban road trip

The Malecon comes alive at sunset. This broad ribbon of cement curves around Havana’s waterfront, and as the sun wanes, the sky turns pink and the road is washed in coppery gold light. Orderly rows of fishermen perch on the sea wall, chatting as they cast their lines and hoping for a haul of bonito tuna or red snapper. Locals sit in pairs, laughing and occasionally canoodling, while the sea breeze brings with it the sound of a three-piece jazz ensemble that’s just started up along the way.

This stretch is considered the classic drive of Havana, tracing over four miles (7km) along the coast from the colonial centre of the Old Town to the business district of Vedado via a stately lineup of weather-faded houses from the 19th century and brutish Russian-style architecture.

It’s here that the city meets the surging ocean. When a strong cold front hits this coast as it often does, waves hurl themselves against the sea wall and over, spraying dozens of feet in the air and flooding the road, but today the sea is calm and mild, lapping innocently at the dark rocks of the shore.

Unlike most great drives, where the highlight of the journey is glorious scenery passing by the windows, the best sights on the Malecon are on the road itself. Vintage 1950s American cars of all colours and kinds parade along its length. One second there is a dreamy round-nosed Buick in duck-egg blue; the next, a Chevrolet Bel Air convertible in brilliant red with silver fins followed by a royal purple Cadillac. They are so numerous and so perfect-looking, it could be a city-wide classic car rally.

The truth is, these vintage cars are not always a dream to drive. As I make my way along the waterfront behind the wheel of a 1955 Chevy – royal red and gold in colour – the gears show flashes of temperament, sticking and occasionally slipping, and the steering has so much give, each turn of the wheel is little more than a gentle suggestion. But there is an indefinable joy in driving one of these vehicles, and it’s not just the warm, fusty smell that evokes the old girl’s decades on the road or her soft leather bench-seats, so broad and comfortable it’s like driving a sofa.

I make my way down the Malecon and turn onto the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja, Havana’s Old Town. Left to crumble after the 1959 revolution, Havana is a time capsule, its formerly grand buildings broken and pocked with neglect. The Old Town dates back to the 16th century, and retains vestiges of its former glory. Grand, palm-filled squares are surrounded by streets with imposing churches, houses painted in cheery pastel colours, and tiny kiosks selling freshly butchered meat or piles of fruits warmed by the sun.

Overhead, neighbours call to one another as they hang out washing in colourful strings from balconies; others gather on doorsteps to shoot the breeze, as often as not with fat Cuban cigars dangling from their fingers.

Guide to Ile de Re

Come July and August, irresistible Ile de Ré is where you’ll find half of Paris on their holidays. With absurdly pretty villages, strips of uninterrupted golden fluffy sand and some freshly-caught (but farcically cheap) seafood, this tiny island is laid-back French seaside chic at its best.

Sun, sea, sand, salt and cycles are the five elements that work together to make Ile de Ré so appealing, and even during the annual Parisian invasion, you can still find quiet corners of this exquisite Atlantic outpost if you know where to rummage. Here’s how to get started.


Explore the island by bicycle

The first thing you’ll notice on Ile de Ré is that everyone is on a bicycle. As the island’s highest point is only 19 metres high and there’s a 100km network of excellent cycle paths, it makes sense to get around on two wheels. Every village has hire shops where you can find tandems, electric bikes, trailers for kids (or, just as often, for dogs) as well as the classic city bike with baskets for your market shopping.

All of the villages are connected by bike lanes, as are almost all of the beaches. Trails dip in and out of vineyards, glide past fields of wheat and poppies and duck through pine forests. One of the wilder landscapes is the nature reserve at Lilleau des Niges on the north-western end, with its salt pans, marshes and thousands of birds. Ile de Ré is only 30km by 5km, but it can take at least two hours to cycle from one end to another – worth bearing in mind if you’re with small children.


Seek out secluded strips of sand

Sandy beaches cover much of the island’s coast, which curls into a fishhook at its western end. And that’s where you want to go to avoid the summertime crowds. Plage de la Conche des Baleines is one long sweep of sand backed by dunes and pine forests, merging into Plage de la Conche and Plage du Lizay. You won’t find ordered rows of rented sun loungers here – just sand and the occasional rollicking surf. Carry on to Les Portes-en-Ré for another collection of beaches, including the sheltered Plage du Trousse Chemise and Plage de la Patache.

The beaches on the southern side are closer to the main villages and, as a result, are more popular. However, outside of the main July-August holiday period (which starts to calm down from the third week of August), the dozen beaches that form an unbroken sandy chain around the island are surprisingly spacious.

Surfers should head to Plage de Gros Jonc near Le Bois Plage-en-Ré for gear rental and lessons. If you’re into kayaking, rent a canoe near the village of Loix for a lazy jaunt through the salt marshland.