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Abbiamo fatto le vacanze in Sicilia!

{We went on holiday to Sicily!}

It’s been two … now five (!) … weeks since we got back from Italy, but I am still excited about our holiday there. I’m not feeling ‘as if I never went away’!

Part of my excitement was due to the fact that I hadn’t been abroad or on a plane for about 4 years before this trip. I had chosen something both Andy and I would enjoy: a hiking trip on some of the volcanoes in Sicily.

This was an organised tour, so we didn’t have to worry about too much, other than making sure we got on the right plane at the right time 🙂 .

I am not naturally very brave with strangers, but I wanted to try out some of my Italian on holiday so I could experience talking with people other than my classmates and teacher! I decided to start the holiday as I would go on, and marched into the Hilton at Euston to ask if we could leave our bags as we were staying at Hilton Gatwick that evening. It worked! So we were free in London for a few hours, which was the one bit of holiday planning I left to Andy. This meant we ended up going for good coffee on Store Street, visiting a photography gallery and having an excellent meal at Mildred’s.

The rest of the journey to Sicily was uneventful. Once we got there, highlights included:

Walking up Vulcano and hearing and smelling sulphur steam huffing from the yellowed rocks. Did you know Vulcano is the original volcano? Named after Vulcan the god of fire, all other volcanoes are mere imitations.

Sulphur fumaroles on Vulcano

Sulphur fumaroles on Vulcano

Swimming in super clear seas (only warm enough for 20 minutes at a time though!) including a fun trip from the beach to our boat. This garnered much admiration from our holiday pals, who were easier to impress than our triathlon pals 🙂

Clear seas from above on one of our walks

Clear seas from above on one of our walks

Snorkelling for the first time. Saw all sorts of fish, a few jellyfish, a possible seahorse, luminous orange things on the rocks, spiny anemones and big sluggy things. No, I am not a marine biologist!

Speaking Italian: translating menus, ordering food, checking veggie status, translating snorkelling instructions, chatting with a random shopkeeper about Scottish whisky and even Making a Phone Call to a restaurant.

Seeing the lava flows on Etna that looked like industrial wasteland. The trip up Etna got rather more ‘exciting’ than planned. One misstep would have seen us sliding off the edge of a cliff and into an enormous caldera. Luckily we survived to tell the tale 😀 .

The 'lower' slopes of Etna

The ‘lower’ slopes of Etna

Making new friends.

A group shot of most of us on Etna

A group shot of most of us on Etna

The scents that hung in the air as we brushed past spring herbs and flowers in bloom.

Flowers

Flowers

Food highlights included cake for breakfast, ice cream, Colomba cake, pistachio pesto, hot chocolate you eat with a spoon and the paccheri alla norma on our last night.

Andy was also happy taking in the views, discovering a new-found interest in geology and putting his camera to good use. He also seemed to become a bit of a group joker … most of the time! (Just don’t ask about Etna).

I had a relaxing time whilst still staying active. Because it was a group tour, there was always someone to chat to and people to go with in smaller groups during free time.

One of the biggest things for me was the confidence I found in speaking to people in Italian. I wasn’t saying anything too complex or probably any more difficult than last time I was there, but the intervening years of study meant I could handle situations better. Only once or twice did I fail to understand what people were saying to me, and I still coped!

I’ve come back enthused about returning and plotting future trips 🙂 .

Here’s a few pics, courtesy of Andy and Anna.

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Trans Wales 2011

The Trans Wales became one of my ‘3 big events for the summer’ after I was persuaded to enter by fellow adventure racing friend, Elizabeth. We were riding as a female pair, with Rachel Henderson also putting in an appearance in the solo category. And so it was we lined up in Builth Wells last week to start what was to be the last edition of this classic race.

The format was 7 days of mountain biking place to place. Each day consisted of a long ‘linking stage’, which was not a race but had a cut-off time. If you got back on time you were given a ‘race time’ equivalent to the cut off. If you got back late you accrued penalty seconds at the rate of 1 per minute. There were also six short timed race sections which ran at some point out on the course during the day. These ranged from 2 to 8km long, were mostly at trail centres and included a hill climb, a descent, some up and down loops and a night stage. For team pairs, the result was averaged and added to the overall time.

The racing added a bit of spice to the event, but we had gone to enjoy ourselves, ride somewhere different and, in my case, give my shiny new bike (Lynskey titanium 29er hardtail) a proper testing out! I never anticipated how this event would feel – there was a great sense of camaraderie, the food that appeared in the inflatable marquee every night was plentiful and tasted good and everyone had tales to tell at the end of the day. The laidback feel extended to the publicised distances (I learnt that every day was pretty much the same; 60-70km, 5-6 hours in the saddle and the profile would go something like up, up, down, down, up, up ….) and the social events. On one night after we had finished riding it was announced that the band would start at 8pm. This was the first we had heard of a band and was when we were at the most remote camping spot in a field full of midges!

My favourite days riding included one wet drizzly moorland pedal where we got into a fantastic rhythm and it felt just like home, and a ‘big country’ ride, complete with awesome views and a long, speedy, hilly special stage in the middle of it. I had a couple of emotionally fraught moments, but as Rachel so cheerfully put it: “if you don’t have at least one ‘moment’ in the Trans Wales, then you haven’t tried hard enough!”

After a day or two of riding under my belt, I found that the new bike (and disc brakes!) inspired confidence and I was cheerfully cruising down and over stuff I wouldn’t have dreamt of riding before. I also discovered the terrain it was perfectly made for when we rode a rocky byway with many stream crossings. I had been told that big wheels ‘roll better’ – but would I really notice anything different? The answer was a definite ‘Yes’! I could come almost to a standstill on a rocky riverbed, then give a little push on the pedals and suddenly pop over an obstacle and onwards. My body can also vouch for the total comfort of this bike as nothing is now hurting!

As for the racing, we found ourselves in first place in the female pairs category following the initial stage. After dropping to second following the downhill third stage we regained the lead the next day and held it to the end. Longer stages, hilly stages and dark stages all worked to our advantage. We rode well as a team and managed to finish the week still on speaking terms – not bad considering we have only actually ever ridden together (socially or otherwise) once before and had quite different approaches to pitching a tent! Elizabeth did a great job of inspiring confidence and making me relax, enjoy the ride and save my energy on the linking stages or, as she put it, “getting ready to chop my legs off” if I didn’t slow down …

Rachel also made a reputation for herself and climbed onto the podium on the final day to collect a popular special award for being the ‘toughest and most cheerful ever tail-ender’!

All in all, a fantastic event and a great result. Next year they are changing the format, but if the atmosphere and organisation is anything like this one I would highly recommend it.

Me and Elizabeth showing off the leader's jerseys!

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