I finished March with a big commission – that’s why it’s taking me so long to catch up with site updates.
Myself and another Daily Telegraph writer spent a long weekend on the Isle of Man with a few to producing a series of articles for both print and online to showcase aspects of the island’s tourism offer for this year.
My brief was to cover three key areas: heritage, family travel and food.
It was a packed few days of steam trains and country roads, seafood and local ales, sea views and country escapes.
I felt by the end of the trip I had finally got to understand more of the island and its low-key charms after a previous visit left me unconvinced.
Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet local of interesting local characters, including Will and Charlotte from the Apple Orphanage [pictured above] outside Peel.
The passion and dedication of these local food heroes, and many more like them, proved to me that there’s a quiet foodie revolution taking place on the island.
* We’re going right back into the archive this week for one of my first ever freelance commissions, based round a trip to Romania.
As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.
Gigi Popa really knows how to hold a tune.
Every night after dinner at his Zarnesti guesthouse, he cracks open the firewater plum schnapps, reaches for his battered old acoustic guitar and strums his way through a back catalogue of singalong favourites from Dylan to Elvis.
But, after the last guest standing drains his glass and the nocturnal mists roll down from the Transylvanian Alps to engulf the farmsteads, the rural heartland of Romania dances to a different tune: the call of the wolves.
“We are not afraid of the wolves and beers,” Gigi tells me, pausing for breath between schnapps-fuelled Romanian folk songs.
“But sometimes they come to the villages at night. If you chain up your dog,” he says, suddenly serious, “the next morning only the chain is left.”
Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, one of the largest natural ecosystems in Europe, is home to over 3,000 wolves, plus a healthy population of beers and lynx – the highest concentration of large carnivores in Europe.
For the first-time amateur carnivore spotter like myself, Romania offers a rare opportunity to leave London in the morning and be infringing on the personal space of critters with big teeth by dusk.
Indeed, with 586 protected areas and 13 national parks (the large majority within the Carpathian ranges), Romania offers a glimpse of an agrarian Europe frozen in time.
The Romanian government may be striving to shake off its Communist hangover and secure entry to the EU but, in Zarnesti, the access point to the southern Carpathians and 170km northwest of Bucharest, life has changed little since the Middle Ages.
Think wizened old crones in headscarves, transport by horse and cart, and the kind of indigenous local fauna that has little Red Riding Hood sleeping with the light on.
Hunting remains big business here with a 60kg adult wolf fetching about 1,000 euros on the open market. Bears were only protected during the Ceausescu years so that the erstwhile dictator could hunt them for sport.
Officially wolves have been protected since 1996 but European trophy hunters still find ways to secure permits by greasing the right palms at the local forestry administration.
“I came to Zarnesti because I’ve always been fascinated by the call of the wild, the power and strength of wolves,” says German-born Christoph Promberger, director of the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP), an umbrella group running various ecotourism projects to foster the fledgling local tourism industry.
Now I’ve never come face to face to with a large carnivore before but Christophe assures me, as we drive over to visit the project’s field cabin, that there’s no need to be nervous.
“In the last 50 years, there have been only eight incidents involving wolf attacks and no fatalities,” he explains, showing me an angry scar on his hand.
“I’ve been within 2m of a wolf, eyeball to eyeball; it was exciting.”
He adds: “Wolves have neither the need nor the experience to attack humans.”
The cabin is home to two wolves rescued from a fur farm and now cared for by CLCP staff. Crai and Poiana, the ‘pet’ wolves, certainly seem friendly enough but we’ve come to answer the call of the wild.
And if we are to actually run with the pack, then we are going to need professional help.
Step forward German national Peter Sürth, wolf expert and animal tracker, who has been tracking wolves across Europe since the Seventies.
“As a tracker I try to get into the wolves’ heads, to feel their needs,” says Peter, as we head out from Zarnesti via the walled city of Brasov to the Ciucas Mountains in the southeast Carpathians.
“Wolves get a bad press simply because humans have lost contact with the forest.”
He adds, “But with European wolf numbers growing again, we need to learn to live together.”
At Babarunca, 60km from Zarnesti, the pot-holed road gives way to a rough dirt track, still wet from a thorough nocturnal dousing. We leave the jeep in a clearing and start to trek along the forest path.
The nearest civilisation suddenly feels a long way away. I’m sure the eyes of the animals are upon us.
“Wolves have a similar social system to humans,” explains Peter as we climb a steep, muddy track deeper into the Dengu forest. “They even raise and educate their puppies in a kind of wolf kindergarten to teach them about survival in the wild.”
Suddenly he stops dead. “Red deer kill,” he says, indicating a patch of hair and fragments of bones under a bush. The hefty imprint of a brown beer’s paw looks up at us mockingly from the mud.
“It’s fresh – within 12 hours,” says Peter, eyes scouring the horizon.
We follow the tracks through the dense foliage until, 45 minutes down the trail, Peter spots a set of wolf tracks, running down from the higher ground at an intersection in the forest glade.
“Even fresher and there’s at least a pair,” he says excitedly, poking around the ground with a stick.
“You can always tell wolf faeces due to the bits of hair and bone, plus the intensely strong smell,” he says, waving a stick thrust into fresh wolfy do-dos under my noise.
Suddenly I’ve lost my appetite for lunch, not to mention my earlier enthusiasm for getting up close and personal with some of our fury forest friends.
Not only can a wolf’s jaw exert double the pressure of a German Shepherd – that’s enough to break a deer’s neckbone in one good, clean bite – but their poo smells worse than the morning after a night of Guinness and chicken vindaloo.
But there’s no turning back now. “Come on,” says Peter. “I think we’re getting close.”
As we reach a ridge looking back over the forest, the trail goes cold. We push on, emerging into a meadow with a sweeping panoramic vista across the Ciucas Mountains, but the only wildlife in evidence are Ionut and Ioan, two teenage boys trundling through the ancient forest on a horse and cart.
As the afternoon passes, we complete a full circle, ending up back at the clearing with the detritus of the deer kill.
The animals must have seen us coming all along.
But, before we head for home, Peter has one last trick up the sleeve of his fleece: it’s time for my wolf-howling tutorial.
“Howling stabilises the social system amongst wolves. It brings them together to give them strength – a bit like humans when we sing,” explains Peter.
And with that, he throws back his head, fills his lungs and lets out a piercing primal scream that ricochets off the mountains like a stray bullet at a Romanian Mafia shoot-out.
Peter looks hopeful. “We’re not just telling the wolves, ‘I’m here,’ but also asking, ‘Where are you?’”
I cup my hands around my mouth and muster up a low, guttural howl. We wait. And wait. The silence of the forest is almost deafening.
Back in the jeep, heading back to Zarnesti, the mood is a muted. “I’ve seen wolves up close less than 20 times in seven years working in the area,” says Peter.
“That’s why there are so few wolf attacks. The wolves are far smarter at avoiding us then we are at finding them.”
At the guesthouse, Gigi is waiting for us with cold beers and words of encouragement. As he cracks open the plum schnapps that night, he tells me of his own tracking adventures as a young man.
“Before the revolution, I would often go into the forest to be with the animals,” he smiles.
“The wolves and beers were my friends.”
The forest animals may guard their privacy from rubbernecking foreigners but, for the avuncular Gigi Popa, they happily come out to play.
Perhaps they realise that passing strangers like me are just the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing.
* A bit of winter sunshine this week with a story from Portugal with a business/ecotourism angle.
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It’s the ultimate escape to the country.
A high-powered advertising executive goes on holiday, falls in love with a rural backwater and quits his job, swopping an expense account and 15-hour working days for a tumbledown village and a back-to-nature lifestyle.
It sounds like a flight of fantasy, but Antonio Ferreira made it a living, breathing reality.
The Lisbon-born high flyer, who handled communication strategy for advertising agencies Young & Rubicam and J Walter Thompson, relocated his whole family to the western Algarve and went about bringing Aldeia da Pedralva, a 200-year-old village near Vila do Bispo, back to life.
He has never looked back.
“I felt like I was living in a washing machine in the city. I didn’t have control over my life,” says Antonio, his olive skin glowing from a heady cocktail of sunshine and fresh air.
“I found it’s fine to have a big car and eat in nice restaurants in Lisbon, but it’s just not real.”
The Ferreira family stumbled upon the former farming village, complete with ten houses and a handful of ageing locals, while holidaying around the Algarve’s lesser-visited west coast in 2006.
Another 40 properties lay in ruins nearby, overgrown and unloved. The once proud, 100-plus agricultural community had dwindled to just nine residents, the majority having left in search of work in Lisbon or Faro in the Seventies.
Drawing on his business acumen, and reflecting on childhood holiday with his grandparents in a central Portuguese village, Antonio recognised it as the project he had been searching for. Bringing the dead village back to life would be his escape the rat race.
“Life is different here,” says Antonio. “You buy your dinner from the fishermen, your vegetables from the village shop. I saw people in the city who felt like me and I decided to build a place where we can all feel at home.”
Antonio bought three houses initially and subsequently spent the next few years buying and rebuilding another 20, restoring the traditional properties, tinged with touches of Arabic architecture, to their erstwhile rustic glory.
But more than just rebuilding the village, he wanted to breath life back life to Pedralva, learning to present the values and traditions of forgotten village life in a new, contemporary way.
As such, he deliberately recycled many of the old materials, using the old roof tiles, wooden doors and broken-down furniture for the new houses.
A group of his advertising colleagues invested €4m/ £3,383,337 in the properties, while the local council ploughed €1m/ £845,880 into building new roads and street lighting. The village shop stocked its shelves for the first time in 25 years and the community oven was coaxed out of retirement to bake fresh bread.
A dedicated reception and restaurant, plus a small outlet store, have since opened their doors.
Today, the village, a 120km (90 minute)-drive down the A22 highway from air hub Faro, is buzzing with vital signs.
Wafts of eucalyptus perfume the air, international visitors rub shoulders with elderly villagers tending the communal vegetable patch and people load up their cars for day trips in the Costa Vicentina Natural Park.
There are now 24, whitewashed stone houses, with 40 rooms between them, available to rent with lots of mod cons, including Nespresso coffee machines, behind each of the pastel-hued front doors.
But how does Padralva’s Strategy Director square his vision for a community-tourism eco-village with the cold, hard reality of running a business?
“It is a business, of course. We have to pay the employees and keep on good terms with the bank. But it’s more than just a simple tourist project, “ he explains.
“By staying in Pedralva, we can understand the real Portugal away from the Algarve resorts.”
Indeed, while the Algarve is traditionally associated with behemoth resorts and crowded beaches, some 70 per cent of the region benefits from protection for its natural diversity – from rare plant and bird species to a raft of unspoiled beaches away from traffic pollution.
Antonio recognised this as the area’s USP and applied his business experience to create a clear vision for Pedralva.
“I knew from 20 years of working in advertising that we needed a unique proposition. Of the 20m people who come to Algarve each year for tourism, the number looking for a more authentic, close-to-nature trip is growing by 10 per cent,” he says.
“Today, we have the market and the product. But it will take at least ten years to turn a profit. Currently, we are investing profits into developing the product.”
The focus for this year is not on restoring more houses, but developing the activity side of the business with a series of new packages based around nature tourism.
These combine self-catering accommodation with guided hiking, biking, fishing and surfing excursions. Furthermore, Antonio plans to open a Nature Sports Center in the village later this year with on-site activities.
On the cultural side, they are planning to open some old village building to artists and craftspeople to develop a programme of artisans in residence. There are currently four artisans fairs in the village each year.
Pedralva is gearing up to welcome an expected 1,200 visitors in 2011 and is aiming for at least 50 per cent occupancy through the year.
The summer is booked out with Spanish and Portuguese families, but the shoulder seasons attract a more international crowd, including lots of Brits, for guaranteed sunshine and activity-based packages.
Most of all, everyone leaves the village with a rare insight into rural traditions from a grass-roots level.
“This projects is a mix of a business venture and something deeply personal for me,” says Antonio.
“Sometimes I feel like two people. One makes the business deals, but the other is just happy to do something to help.”