Monday, October 10, 2016

Saddles - Work in Progress

In my world, dealing with saddle fit has become an exercise in problem solving.

In mid-August, Roo did Tahoe Rim Ride with Ash and then had six weeks off while Fergus and I went and did VC100. Having signed up for Red Rock 50 in mid-October, I realised that it would probably be good to actually ride Roo before then, so two weekends ago off we went to Cool with the intention of "doing a proper conditioning ride".

As I said at the time on FB - "Man Plans, God Laughs".

Apparently six weeks off was not A Good Thing. Roo was so obnoxious that I couldn't do anything with him. Every time we tried to trot, he'd start to leap about and threaten to dump me. Finally after six miles of discussion, he settled down and we were able to get on with it. At which time, my stirrup leather promptly broke and we ended up walking lopsidedly back to the trailer.

I was glad he only spooked slightly at the dozen turkeys grazing in the undergrowth on the way home, since I was clutching the stirrup + fender in one hand.

Did you know, if you get on from one side using the remaining stirrup, it's nigh on impossible to straighten the saddle once you're sitting in it, without that other stirrup on the off-side?

Inspection of the stirrup leather revealed that the stitching had just disintegrated. The stirrup leathers were actually some fenders that I stole off my Barefoot saddle from ten years ago and had been working nicely with Roo's newly-inherited 15" Specialized Eurolite (the one I bought for Fergus).

Sewing them back together wasn't rocket science, so last night I sat down with my 'good' sewing machine, unpicked all the dead thread, and sewed them back together (I took the precaution of resewing the second fender too, even though it was only "tired", not "disintegrated"). Ta da!

Not rocket science to sew back up.

My good Juki sewing machine struggled a little with the double thickness, but with some careful hand-cranking it went fine. 

This morning I opted to "quickly put them back on the saddle" before I fed the horses. You can see where this is going, right? An hour later, I had reattached the fenders, realised that they were much more bulky than the original Specialized stirrup leathers ("biothanes"?), so were creating a bulge where they passed under the cushion panels on the underside of the saddle. I could cut a notch in the neoprene panels, but since I'm not sure if I'll continue to use these fenders, I was a little leery to do that. Not to mention when I put the saddle on Roo's back (without a pad), I decided it was actually bridging right around where the bulge was, so probably needed shimming anyway. This was the saddle Ash rode him in at TRR and oddly he didn't seeem to have any back issues - or at least so I thought, but I still didn't like it.

So then I had to find some shims to try and minimize the bridging/make the stirrup leather bulge less pronounced. To do that I had to steal the shims that I was using as knee blocks, which meant finding the other knee-block-shims-bodge that I was using on Fergus' 16" saddle, and then thinking "hmm, maybe I should steal the real knee blocks from my Sensation for the ride" which got me thinking "hmm, maybe I should order a set of real knee blocks from Sensation in Canada, along with a pommel bolster... and what's the Canadian dollar worth these days...?"

etc... etc...

The upshot is, I think I've got the saddle set up a little better; I need to ride Roo in it before we leave for Red Rock on Friday to make sure, and to fiddle with the knee blocks to see if the faked-shim-ones will work, or if the Sensation real ones would be better.

Shimming the 16" Specialized Eurolite 

In the meantime, I took pics of how I shimmed the 16" Specialized Eurolite for me for VC100 - I was thrilled with how this saddle felt and didn't have any problems with it the entire ride.

It's a bit hard to see, but hopefully this gives an idea. I primarily used Specialized shims, then added a twist bolster (from Sensation) and a sheet of material similar to shelf-liner - sort of foamy-cushy stuff.

When I was figuring out what I needed I just kept adding thins shims little by little, sitting in the seat and wriggling around to see how my seat bones/hips felt. It took surprisingly little thickness to make it not work, versus feeling good.

Some Specialized shims along the center line, flaring out closer to the pommel to add twist,
then a twist bolster (long triangular cushion) in front to give some "swell".

Followed by the addition of some material that came in a pad, but is similar to foamy-shelf liner.
This was to add cush for my seat bones. Initially when it was double thickness in front it was too bulky, so I shaped the lower layer slightly.

Second layer flopped over the top. 

In the rear, I have the rest of the center shim, followed by a couple of little flat shims to shorten the seat up a tiny bit - I was swimming in the 16", but the 15" is just too small.

Flop the shelf-liner type material down, then I added a small roll of – I admit it – it's that bubbly packing material - it's only about 1/2" thick and probably unnecessary, but it made just that little bit of difference to snug up the seat.

All that stuff under the removable seat made for a perfect-shaped seat, along with the knee blocks velcroed under the front flaps of the seat. Finally, I had the sheepskin shown above on the brown saddle over the top of everything to cover it all up. Voila. Perfect 100 mile padding. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Autumn Fergus/Saddle Update

So much to learn, so little time to write it all down.

(This post is almost all about trials and tribulations with Fergus this year, and as such often fails to mention "other stuff going on". Not that the other stuff wasn't good and interesting, but I had to stop typing at some point rather than just regurgitate the last four and half months of Interesting Topics)


Back in May I was still trying to get the brown 15" Eurolite to work for Fergus and I. We were aiming for Tevis, I'd gone as far as ordering him a spiffy new purple halter and reins, and announced "provided nothing goes wrong, we should be able to pull it off".

< roll eyes > You just couldn't keep quiet, could you?

On a Sunday in late May, we did a nice training ride from Driver's Flat to White Oak Flat and back - lots of good climbing, a couple of interesting snake sightings and I was very happy with how he felt.

King snake taking a shower by the side of the creek below Francisco's.
This was one of two king snakes we saw that day.

By Thursday he was dead-lame. We'd just had some rain, which caused me to freak out that he'd slipped in the mud and pulled something vital, but instead I waited two weeks for an abscess to pop out and it finally did. Rather that immediately giving relief, if anything he was even more lame at that point. Argh.

Finally, two and half weeks into it, I was able to get him in to see Supreme Lameness vet Marty Gardner (now permanently based in Ione, CA) who diagnosed his problem in about 15 seconds (no exaggeration) - an infected corn - had his assistant pare out the problem area with a sharp hoof knife, revealing the black pocket below. "A few weeks and he should be good as new".

But we were out of time - I'd needed that month to really get in some good conditioning and ramp Fergus up to where I needed him to be, fitness-wise. No Tevis for us this year.  :(


It turns out that my method of trimming wasn't paring away enough bar, and the result was an impacted area of hoof - and the likely contributor to much of Fergus' toe-first landing and lameness-niggles over the past couple of years - if not longer (see our post-NASTR 75 story from 2015).

Thankfully, it's a relatively easy fix now that I know what I should be watching for, and although I still struggle with where the rest of the bar should be, at least I know enough to scoop out the heels more aggressively.

Hands up if you can spot the corner of the foot that Fergus was avoiding weighting on landing?
(and subsequent location of the abscess)

The good thing about Renegades is they are foot-specific, so the horse wears the same boot on the same foot giving you a very clear view of how he's landing and what problems may need addressing. From the wear pattern on this boot, I was aware of a problem, but didn't know what it was or how to fix it.

Due to his "disability", I only got 100 miles out of this boot before he wore through the toe. I added another 100 miles to it before abandoning it.

This is the matching boot from his right front, same mileage.

I can still see where he's loading up the outside edge, but no where close to how he was wearing the left foot.

Unfortunately, standing funky for over a month while his foot healed up, meant that Fergus' front feet got totally out of whack with weird additional medial height, necessitating aggressive rebalancing = taking off more foot than I really wanted to.

16" Specialized Eurolite

Right about when he went lame, a 16" Specialized Eurolite popped up for sale just 30 minutes away from me, so I grabbed it. It turned out to be an older tree (pre-2010, the trees were much flatter) which actually suited Fergus' long flat back better. It wasn't nearly as nice a saddle as the brown 15" one, but it was the right size and came with fenders. Someone had added some rather pathetic breast collar D-rings to the front of the saddle that I figured would come off the first time they were put under any strain (they did).

I fiddled around shimming the saddle for me (it didn't need much adjustment to fit Fergus) and was relatively happy with how it felt, even if I couldn't really keep my balance in it very well.

By early July, we were back up and running again. I took Fergus and Roo over to NV and spent a happy afternoon riding 20 miles with Crysta, Pam and Connie - climbing NV-style (aka never-ending) and both pones did great. Even with Roo leaping about on the end of the lead rope, I was able to ride nicely in the new saddle.

Pam, Connie, and Crysta after climbing up to the pipeline trail.
Pam and Crysta went on to finish Tevis a few weeks later.

These two were a handful, happy to be out. Gorgeous views over Washoe Valley

The Monday after Tevis we rode CA Loop with Ash (on Roo) and KT (on Ani), and then at the end of July we spent a few days up at Packer Saddle just north of the Sierra Buttes and I was able to put another 25 miles of slow climbing on his back end.

Letting the horses take a break at Francisco's after doing CA Loop

Headed south from the Pack Saddle campground to access the PCT

On the Deer Lake > Pack Saddle campground trail - they are planning to reroute the PCT onto this trail

And so we headed to Bridgeport in mid-August, not nearly as fit as I wanted, but at least upright and sound.

Bridgeport - Eastern High Sierra Classic (EHSC)

I hadn't ridden the Bridgeport ride in six years and it was definitely time to go back. It was on the schedule last year, but cancelled at the last minute due to a fire near the trail. I love this ride, but in retrospect, it really isn't a good choice for Fergus - lots of very tight twisty places to muscle him around, resulting in a weary rider.

Weary or not, it really is probably one of the loveliest rides in the West Region:

Going for the "high energy" look :)

It was the first time I'd done an e-Ride with him booted on all four feet - a little nervous-making, but the Renegades stayed on - with just one emergency toe-strap replacement when the velcro filled up with crud. He didn't feel totally comfortable over rocky footing yet (remember I'd had to aggressively rebalance his feet, so they hadn't had a chance to grow out properly), but we finished and he looked pretty good at the end, considering.

Following our first distance excursion, the 16" Eurolite was deemed "OK". My calves were sore and my crotch was burning. The first few miles of riding felt like I was a complete beginner, with absolutely no balance or control over my floppety body. I hated riding in a new saddle and hated that feeling of discombobulation. It was "OK", but I wanted that usual feeling of "being at one with my horse" back again.

I'd originally intended to ride both days, but Fergus was a bit tight in the right rear glute towards the end of Day 1, so we opted to go to the hot springs on Sunday instead. It poured with rain - score on two counts - I wasn't riding in it, and all the people cluttering up the pools scuttled back to their cars, leaving deserted, quiet pools for us to soak in.

More Tweaks

I had four weeks to get things straightened out before Virginia City 100.

(three weeks if you consider that the following week Ashley flew in from AZ to ride Roo at the Tahoe Rim Ride - I was along as crew and driver, and volunteer at the out-vet check. The ride went great and we all had fun. And best of all, Roo didn't dump her).

Crewing. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
Roo in his jammies

On others' recommendation, I tried shortening my stirrups a hole (necessitated punching a hole in the fenders, since they were on the shortest setting). That felt like a jockey, so I punched another "half-hole" in between and that felt reasonable.

I spent an afternoon playing with bits of felt and various other pieces of padding and learned some things about rotating pelvises, thigh angle, and how the two affect how pointy your seat bones feel. The best padding turned out to be bubble wrap, but was deemed insufficiently durable for a 100 miler so I had to abandon that concept. I added padding, I took padding out, I cut padding up, etc. Poor Fergus had to deal with me getting on, riding 30 feet, getting off.... repeat for an entire afternoon. He was a good boy, although the couple of times we set off down the lane, only to return within a minute or so got him very confused and he suggested that maybe the ride ought to be a little longer?

Very cushy, but not very durable. It was worth a try, though.

I finally realised that part of my problem was not having enough security in the front of the saddle to snug myself behind. Although I had the additional "knee block" shims in there (see pic here from May), it wasn't enough. A lightbulb went off and I fetched the knee blocks out of my Sensation saddle.

These are designed to velcro onto the underside of the saddle - and on a saddle with flaps, are completely covered. Unfortunately, the Eurolite only has shortie flaps (which is how come it's "light"), so the velcro-face was sticking out towards me. I'd had this problem with the shims I'd been using and had wrapped them in a couple of pieces of fleece, but I was worried that would wear through during a 100 miler, so instead popped them into a spare pair of Equiflex Sleeves - purple, to boot - to keep me from snagging onto the exposed hook-velcro.

(Ann's question this morning about "d'you have a pair of socks on the front of the saddle?" made me realise that, yes, a pair of socks (if I can find some purple ones) would be a better option, to save the more expensive EquiFlex Sleeves).

And voila! The saddle was ready to ride.

Virginia City 100

I slept the best I have ever slept at a ride the night before VC100. Having just stuffed 4.5 weeks-worth of work-hours into the previous two weeks might have had something to do with it, but it was good to feel that calm.

Fergus has developed a man-crush on KT's horse Ani and insisted that he couldn't be more than 5 feet from him at any time which got a little old (especially as we were milling about at the start and he was very naughty), but it worked out OK.

photo: Bob Hall

The saddle felt great right from the start - I was able to stay in it, despite Fergus trotting his Biggest Ever Trot (separated from Ani, he had to catch up). I got a nasty rub on the inside of one knee, but that was more due to a new pair of tights than the saddle, and liberal application of anti-chafe gel helped the problem (that, and switching to fresh clothing at the 50 mile hold).

He was in massive glue-ons for the ride - feet still not where I wanted them, I was leery to trim any more off. 3.5 glue-ons on the front were probably a little too big, and we lost the left front at about 33 miles just before Bobcat Canyon on our way down towards Washoe Lake.

My boot bags could only accommodate one 2WW Ren and I didn't have any gloves big enough to fit his front feet, but Ren #1 was enough - off we went again in mismatched boots. I was actually glad my "spare" was a Renegade, since I wouldn't have been able to get a glove on there very easily with all the excess glue still on his foot.

Arriving at the Washoe Trot-by with an extra spare.
photo: Diana Hiiesalu

photo: Diana Hiiesalu

At the Washoe Trot-by I borrowed a rasp and scraped off the excess glue on his hoof wall so I could get the boot on there better. I then replaced the "spare" in the boot bag with Renegade #2.

Multi-tasking - KT's mom Carol elytes Fergus, while Renee feeds him mash, and I rasp.
Many thanks to them both for their crewing help.
Photo: Diana Hiiesalu

Removing excess glue, so I could get the spare Renegade to seat nicely
Photo: Diana Hiiesalu

During this short "break" (hah), Fergus was tormented by stinging insects and was flailing around and I was foolish enough to get in his way and got nailed by a flying back leg. That hurt, but luckily it was a sideways blow, not a full-on kick, so although I had a spectacular bruise to show for it, and whiplash of the lower back, at least it wasn't my head.

Photo: Bob Hall

Back at camp at 51 miles, Renee procured a size 3 glove from Tami Rougeau to replace the mismatched Ren.

Leaving camp after this hold, he was nice and loose (I've had horses be stiff at that point, from standing for an hour) and he was very motivated going across American Flat (read "I must be in front, trotting way faster than everyone around me").

At 60 miles, climbing up to Jumbo Grade, I looked down and noticed my pommel bag flapping around. Realised it was because the ring that it - and my breast collar - were attached to was no longer attached to the saddle. The wimpy ring (remember that one at the top of the page?) had given way. I had to work around this wardrobe malfunction by attaching the breast collar lopsidedly. Fergus apparently didn't notice, thankfully.

At 63 miles, just after the Jumbo #2 hay stop, he lost the second front glue-on, and the spare Ren went back on again until the hold back in camp at 76 miles where Renee snagged second size 3 glove from Tami. At least we were in matching boots now.

(thanks goes to ride partners Kerrie Tuley and Cortney Bloomer for noticing the flying footwear, as I might not have). 

We left the 76 mile check and rode the next 16 miles on our own, much to Fergus' sadness. Getting sleepy at midnight was not good - I knew we still had at least another four hours to go. I sang, Fergus trudged, I worried he was going lame (he was weaving back and forth across the trail and travelling crab-wise - I later figured out he was smelling the vegetation by the side of the trail to sniff out the sparse bunch grass), I sang some more. I felt queasy so sang quieter.

At the 92 mile check we caught up with the two riders ahead of us - Carolyn and Alex - and, lo, Fergus was miraculously cured. We went from "definitely going to be pulled for lameness" to "holy crap, could you be any stronger or more obnoxious??". Fergus charged out of there like he'd only gone ten miles and proceeded to barrel back down the trail towards camp. Attempts to slow him down - and get him off the side of the trail when someone in a vehicle needed to pass - were met with distain and pushy behaviour.

Comparing this bargy horse with the sad sore one from the previous year, I was pretty thrilled (not to mention it woke us both up).

We crossed the finish line at 3:48 a.m. (21st out of 44 starters) and were back in camp and off the horse by 4:30 a.m... 24 hours after I'd gotten on the previous morning.

< proud of my big bargy horse >

The vet detected slight loin soreness at the final check, but I don't think it was any more than the result of a horse that wasn't as fit as he could be doing 100 miles and walking a good part of the last loop. By the following morning, any residual soreness was gone. My body was fine too - no pokey aches from treed saddle digging in.

I declare the saddle a success for both of us!

Extra D-rings

You can never not have enough D-rings.

This week I took the 16" Eurolight to the saddle guy in Newcastle and asked him to properly attach those front D-rings again; replace the rather wimpy leather holding four of the others on (it was only a matter of time before they wore through and fell off); as well as adding two custom D-rings on the back of saddle behind my leg.

My task for this coming weekend is to design and sew two new boot bags that will accommodate two sets of 2WW Renegades snugly on the back of either side of the saddle. I love my old sausage bags, but they were designed to fit two of Roo's size 0.5 gloves. I can just get a single 2WW in the bag, but it takes ten minutes to wiggle it in there and ten minutes to wiggle it back out again, and as VC100 showed me, carrying enough spares for each foot really is important.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Eurolite Fitting Update

So my Endurance Plan this year is going about as well as my Endurance Plan went in the second half of last year, that's to say, not swimmingly ... i.e. we haven't managed a single ride yet this year. I'll admit to feeling heightened anxiety (read "mild panic") at this point akin to a newbie who's never done any rides. I don't feel ready, I don't feel my horses are ready, I don't feel our equipment fits, I'm not fit enough, etc, etc...

Part of the problem has been trying to work out saddle fit for Fergus. After spending the first few months of the year trying out various saddles, finding some that worked for him, but not for me, I finally settled on a Specialized Eurolite. As someone warned me, they are good saddles - once you get them dialled in for the horse. ...And we're still at the "getting it dialled in" stage. We're close, but given our past saddle fit problems, I'm super-picky.

This weekend, after about 14 miles, I finally felt like I'd just about got the saddle to where it needed to be for me, but found some interesting sore spots on my undercarriage today. To say I mourn the use of my Sensation* would be an understatement.

(* I'm still using it on Roo and Uno, so get to be reminded of its loveliness at regular intervals).

The nice thing about the Eurolite is the removable seat. A saddle fitter helped me by showing me just what could be done in terms of making it more comfortable for me. As a result, I now have more of a twist in the seat than I ever felt would be possible thanks to the creative use of a Sensation pommel bolster and some carefully positioned Specialized shims:

Pommel bolster + shims to add twist and make the seat work for me

She also showed me how to make knee rolls - which I needed, not being used to free-swing stirrups or lack of pommel to brace against on steep downhills.

Knee rolls. Look bodged, work great.

All these items were hidden under my trusty sheepskin... until I rode a few times and discovered that either my bum is too big, or (more likely, of course), I have a long femur (grasping at straws), resulting in feeling like the seat is too small and falling out the back of it. As it turns out, the Eurolite is a 15", my Sensation is a 15.5", and the UltraLite I demoed (which felt HUGE) was a 16". Of course.

So I sadly ditched the sheepskin cover, and proceeded to rip the crotch and knee out of a (thankfully old) pair of tights on the exposed hook-velcro on the shims on two short rides. Hmmm.

Found a few scraps of purple fleece and used them to wrap around the hook-velcro, and, voila, properly cushioned shims. Except that the purple is... well, purple, and doesn't really match anything else. I shall try to find some non-purple scraps of stretch fleece.

This was the latest in shimming on the underside for Fergus, plus widening the cushions in back to flip the front up more:

Fergus is fairly flat-backed, so needed some shims to offset the rock in the tree

we rasped down the center area of the cushions to give him more space in his bulgy areas closer to his spine
...and the latest mod was widening the area between the cushions just in the back to try and alleviate some pressure in front.

The above shimming/cushion placement still resulted in this odd ruffled area (between my fingers) after 17 miles, but it was somewhat improved compared to earlier setups:

As an experiment, on our morning quickie 3-mile blast up the lane and back, I added more shoulder shims, thinking that the offending area is just behind the pommel area on the tree, but that resulted in completely dry areas, so nix that. Apparently it's the shoulder area that is acting funky.

We're off to the Tevis Fun Ride tomorrow, so hopefully Brenda Benkly will be able to take a look at it and offer some advice on what else I can do.

Of course, predictably, this week I've decided that if I find a 16" Eurolite, I will grab it, so might end up going through this whole thing again, unless the tree turns out to be the same. Right now I can work with what I've got, but I don't love it. 

Ten weeks until Tevis. Fergus is, at this point, less than enthusiastic, but I suspect that might be because we've been training solo all year and he's lonely. We shall see how he feels this weekend in company and if he seems better, my entry will go in the mail. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Cinque Terra and Family Reunion

Years ago, discussing an upcoming mountain biking trip to Switzerland for pft's 50th birthday, I idly wondered where *I'd* like to go for my 50th birthday treat and came to the conclusion that I'd love to go to Cinque Terra, but figured it would never happen. 

Fast-forward to last year when my Dad and I started discussing a possible family reunion in 2016 to celebrate his 80th and my 50th - and it suddenly became a reality. We don't do this very often. Last "proper trip" was 1996 when we all gathered in Queensland. Since then, the only other time we've all gotten together was 2012 when my younger half-brother got married in England - and that was just a brief visit. 

It was lovely to see the family and spend some "proper" time with them over a longer time period. Many thanks to my Dad for helping with costs so that we could pull this off. I really hope we can somehow do it again.

The Trip:

Day 1 - Porto Venere

Home of good restaurants, fine views over the Gulf of Spezia, Byron's Grotto (allegedly he swam across to Lerici to visit his friends the Shelleys who were living in Lerici - Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein"... more on that later), the amazing church of San Pietro (the "new" church built in the 1200s, unlike the "old" church next door which was roman).

Looking towards Cinque Terra from the church of San Pietro

I loved the little intimate church - thinking, as we climbed up to its lofty location, that it would be grandiose, but it was tiny. The architectural was lovely - with little balconies and doorways to view the surrounding coastline.

Day 2 - Monterosso and Vernazza by Train

pft and I took the train to Monterosso and then to Vernazza to find out if you could visit either by wheelchair (Vernazza - yes, there's a lift; Monterosso - no, there's two flights of stairs to street-level, and the information person I asked about a lift acted as though I was being lazy by suggesting we might need one for a wheelchair person). The trains go every 30 mins and only take 10 minutes to get from La Spezia to the first village of Riomaggiore - and after that the villages are 3-4 minutes apart. The best option was to get a six hour ticket (valid for one direction only), so you could hop on and off the train as you fancied, which freed you up to visit whatever you wanted on your schedule.

Overlooking Vernazza harbour 

We spent most of our time poking around in all the little alleyways in the two villages. There are a maze of these - you basically climb stairs and go through tunnels and see where it takes you. Sometimes you end up at someone's front door. Sometimes the maze links you back to where you started.

One of hundreds of little alleyways in Vernazza

In Vernazza, we climbed up to the stone tower overlooking the whole village - loved this village.

View from the tower high above the village

Refilling our water bottles from the village water supply.
About a week a later, I came across some Americans who asked if one could drink the water
and I was able to tell them that, yes, it was fine, since I hadn't died the previous week from drinking it.

Day  3 - Cinque Terra by Car

They tell you not to visit Cinque Terra by car - and I sort of understand why. The roads aren't wide enough in many places for two (v small) cars to pass; the roads twist back on themselves with many blind corners, so you drive very slowly; and parts were washed away during the 2011 flood, so you squeak past holding your breath. Still, it was fascinating to access the villages from "behind the scenes" so to speak and see the terrain high on the hills inland.

Looking north along the coast to the Portofino Peninsula. I really wanted to drive here
the day after the rains when I figured the view would be really clear. 
 The little Fiat we rented needed an extra gear as 1st was too low and 2nd too high.

We first visited Monterosso - looking along the coast towards Portofino - and then worked our way around on the high road, until we came to a section that was closed due to landslide and had to backtrack. We ended up going down about 1500' on a tiny road almost all the way down to Vernazza, before going up all the way back up to the top again to get around the missing section. This area almost reminded me of Devon - similar geology, even to the point of the gorse bushes - and similar tiny houses jammed up close to the road.

Peeking down on Corniglia and Manarola from the high road

Admiring the views from the high road, we detoured down to Corniglia and Manarola, just to see if we could (you can).

Manarola from the road above

Day 4 - Monterosso to Vernazza Hiking

This was a lovely day - pft and I took the train again to Monterosso and bought a hiking ticket to access the "low" trail along the coast to Vernazza. It was overcast and cooler (mid-60s) this day, which was welcome given that the trail was like a never ending stairmaster with way better views.

Steps, steps and more steps

Looking back towards Monterosso over vineyards and lemon groves

The trail wends its way through lemon groves (with intoxicating smells of citrus blossom), vineyards and olives (most with orange or green nets strung underneath for later harvesting). While we were hiking, there must have been a fire inland (although we never saw any smoke) because a helicopter + bucket started dipping in the sea, shortly followed by a scooping plane who'd skim along the sea surface for about 500 yrds before making a labored take-off again.

Watching the scoop-plane and bucket helicopter

Strangest thing on the hike? A cat grotto with signs asking passerbys to drop off any excess food for the cats. 

Practising our selfies above Vernazza

Looking to see if we can see my brother Dominic and Lisa at the assigned quay-meeting spot

Finished the hike with a well-earned gelato and met my brother, Dominic, and his girlfriend Lisa for cappucino at the sea-front.

"I'll hold your gelato, pft, while you take the picture..."

Day 5 - Pisa - A day-trip on the train with the family.

Patrick, Lisa, and Dominic waiting for our allotted time to ascend the tower.
They let groups of 45 people up at a time to ensure you're not jammed up there with 30,000 of your best friends. 

Once you're up there, you can stay as long as you like and we spent a happy 45 minutes looking at the views.

Overlooking the Cathedral - that's my Dad asleep in the bottom right hand corner.
Sadly no way to get Sally in her wheelchair to the top.

The tower is actually shaped like a banana. The initial building started in the mid-1100s, they got about three storeys up before realising things were not going well. Construction was abandoned for 100 years until a new architect came along and thought he could fix the problem by building the rest of the structure at an opposing angle.

Banana bell tower for the Cathedral

Most fascinating were the marble steps inside, worn down from 800 years of feet:

Marble steps worn down by 800 years of feet

It's an odd feeling walking up and down the stairs, as you rush on the downhill ones, and feel more effort on the uphill ones - even though you're going downhill all the time. The base of the tower tilts by about 4-5 feet.

Hard to show, but the left side of the picture is the "high" side of the base,
with the right side showing how much it tilts on the "low" side.

I also particularly liked all the little vignettes on the cathedral doors - most especially the rhinoceros (no clue why it was on the door).

Best thing on the whole trip - the rhinoceros on the Cathedral door

And that's what happens if you have wings and a tail

Just like the Emirates Airways flight attendants - bringing steamed towels

"She did it..."

Angel bringing alcohol to someone who probably doesn't need it.
His drunk friends below definitely don't need it.

Day 6 - rainy and wet, so spent the day reading. We did go out for a wonderful lunch of locally-cooked ravioli in exotic flavours like smoked salmon and curry, and ricotta and walnut sauce. Got to try a local delicacy - sgabei - which are little pillows of fried loveliness that you eat with prociutto and stracchino (soft cheese).

Day 7 - Lerici

Still rainy, but I drove Patrick, Dominic and Lisa to Lerici to walk along the sea-front. Unfortunately, being a Sunday, the rest of Italy was also there, but it was a fun exercise in people watching.

Looking across to Porto Venere - remember Byron who was supposed to have swum across this bay?

The hulking castle on the point was said to be the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. On the way home, the skies opened and we drove slowly in torrential rain.

Day 8 - Vernazza to Corniglia
(with a quick trip to Manarola)

Most beautiful clear day - Patrick and I took the train to Vernazza and hiked along the "low" path to Corniglia. Being about 800 foot up the hillside meant that we could see clear across to Corsica, over 100 miles to the south.

Looking down on Corniglia, with Manarola further along the coast
The trail was very well maintained and so fun to hike along - interesting terrain and absolutely gorgeous views 

Boy from Missouri done good

Nets under the olive trees for later harvesting

Corniglia is the only village not directly down at sea level and has no harbour:


We finished up by hot-footing the ~400 steps down to the railway station at sea-level and taking the train one three minute ride over to Manarola.

Corniglia is also one of the quietest towns owing to the 400 steps you have
to climb to get there from the railway station at sea level.

Main street in Manarola

Manarola - deserved more time than we spent here that day, so I came back a few days later

Day 9 - Monterosso by Car

The day wasn't the loveliest, but showcased exciting seas,
... and meant we had to duck into a gelateria at one point for "shelter"

We were really happy to be able to explore some of the little side alleys with Sally, as so many of the ones in Vernazza involve steps and were therefore off-limits to wheelchairs. Thankfully Monterosso is the flattest of the villages - the new town has a beach-front promenade, while the old town doesn't start to head upwards for a while.

I also got to sample foccacia with potato and rosemary - just the thing on a cold day, even if I was still full of lunch and gelato.

Both Vernazza and Monterosso were badly damaged during the October 2011 flood. Most buildings' ground floors were completely filled with mud - including the one where we had lunch.

Day 10 - Portofino

My Dad drove us along the "coast road" (as opposed to the autoroute, which is mostly in tunnels) to Portofino for lunch. It was all a bit of a rush as we needed to be back in La Spezia to meet Dominic and Lisa off the train - they'd been to Venice for a couple of days.

View from the Passo del Bracco. The road runs inland for a while before dropping down to the coast at Sestri Levante

Portofino is a quaint village with a tiny marina (in which was moored an enormous, out of place, motoryacht).

Not a great panorama, owing to the fact that this quayside is actually straight, but gives you an idea of the town.

We left Dad and Sally to eat lunch in the main square while we did a quick reccy along the quayside

The boat ramp forms one side of the square

This part of the coast is much more populated than Cinque Terra, with tons of yacht marinas. 

Looking across the bay to Rapallo. Apparently my grandparents (Grandpa and Grandma Chaplin)
used to visit Santa Margarita which is between Rapallo and Portofino back in the 1950s.
I bet it was a lovely part of the world back then. Nowadays it's a little too crowded for my taste.

I don't know if the sea was high from an incoming storm, but the level was just a few inches below the quay/sidewalk and regularly washed up onto the walkway (resulting in wet socks for the unsuspecting).

Yes, pft did end up with wet socks, and yes, I was glad to be wearing my waterproof hiking shoes

Maybe there's a reason for the rhinoceroses in this part of the world, but the pink meerkats make no sense at all. This was a sculpture garden that was sadly closed, but we could admire the parts we could see from the quayside:

Pink meerkats topping the posts

Day 11 - Cinque Terra
(Riomaggiore, Manarola > hike > Volastra > hike > Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso)

Patrick, Dominic and Lisa went to the two Ferrari museums inland in Modena, while I took the day to "do" Cinque Terra properly.

Dad kindly dropped me at La Spezia train station and I hopped on the train to Riomaggiore where it was cold and windy and I had to bundle up in every item of clothing I had with me.

Selfie - bundled up

Riomaggiore from the harbour.

I don't know if it was it was because it was so cold and overcast, or because they were doing lots of construction in the town, but I found this village to be the least appealing of all of them, although it had some really fun mazes of alleyways. Many were hard to distinguish from steps leading down to people's front gardens, so it was an adventure to take every little entrance and see where it led.

Being in the drainage points of steep-sided valleys, all of the villages are criss-crossed by an amazing (and often hidden) network of drainage channels. I looked at this structure in the photo below for a quite while before realizing it was a drain of some kind, linking into a network above it.

This tower at the top of the town has been here since the year 500

After poking around in Riomaggiore, I took the train 3 minutes up the coast to Manarola, ate a breakfast of foccacia overlooking the harbor, and started hiking.

The "low" path between Manarola and Corniglia had been landslided out, so I had to take the "high, panorama" trail - about 1,500' up the hillside, via the village of Volastra. Before you even start to hike, you slog your way up to the very top of the town and start to wonder "Do I really want to do this?". Peering up the hillside, you can see hikers high above you, and several times I questioned myself as to if I really really wanted to do this hike??, but I'd come a long way and was determined to follow through.

And I'm so glad I did.

The first part of the hike is actually very easy - a gentle gangway above the village, lulling you into a false sense of security.

There were wildflowers everywhere - so pretty!
After hiking the gradual part for a while, the trail started to get serious. I worked my way around a ridge... and then when straight up that ridge. The cold from earlier was definitely starting to dissipate.

Unlike the "low" pay-trails from earlier in our trip, this more inland, less-frequented, free trail was much more rugged, with more exposure and no handrails.

Loved this part, and stood a long time gazing out at the view

Every time you came around a corner, you'd think the view down to the village would be the last time you'd see it... and then you'd climb higher, and there it would be again, even more breathtaking than before. 

Corniglia, perched on its rocky promontory.

It's hard to put into words how wonderful this trail was - despite the uphill slog, it was one of the highlights of my trip.

...but what a lot of steps!

At this point, the trail started to climb again, up endless sets of shallow steps.

I finally remembered to turn on my GPS, after stopping to remove my jacket (stuffed into my pack), my fleece sweater (around my waist), and my scarf (tucked into the shoulder strap).

And finally the trail topped out in the tiny village of Volastra. From here, it levelled off and followed the vineyard terraces for a few miles. The smells were lovely - a mix of freshly turned soil, citrus, and other vegetation.

along terraces

If you look carefully at the big version of this photo, you can see the steps leading from the railway station at sea level, up to Corniglia on it's rocky perch

The metal thing in the foreground is a monorail system they have set up on some of the steeper hillsides, with a mini-train to pile the harvest onto and move it (presumably) to a location from where it could be transported.

I counted 32 terrace-levels on this hillside

This section of trail was strangely reminiscent of the upper part of the CA Street Loop on the Western States Trail

Blissed out hiking (and hot)

Finally Corniglia came into view and the trail dropped sharply downhill. I was glad I'd hiked it in this direction, since the trail went straight down the ridge, with no switchbacks to alleviate the climb if you'd been coming in the opposite direction. It was also very rough along here and my feet were starting to get a little achy from constantly rolling over rocks, despite wearing good hiking shoes.

Looking down on Corniglia

Dropping from one terrace to the next. You have to imagine these trails have been here for hundreds of years

The trail was as rough as it had been on the descent to Corniglia
 And then you pop out into the town square:

This is the "main street" in Corniglia

In Corniglia I sat for a while and rested my sore feet (I hiked about 8 miles that day) while eating a gelato. Sitting there, contemplating the 400 steps down to the trail station, I looked up and there was the shuttle minibus to the railway station. For €2.5* (~$3), I hopped on that bus and took the two and half minute journey down, feeling a little foolish and in retrospect wishing I'd hiked the stairs.

(* apparently it's only €1.5 if you buy a ticket from someone other than the bus driver. And better still, if you buy a hiking card, you can use all the buses and trains free - excellent value if you are a total overachiever).

From Corniglia, I took the train three minutes to Vernazza. I wanted to have one last visit to this village (my favorite), as well as better inspect the areas that had been affected by the October 2011 flood. 

25th October 2011 Flooding

There are many horrifying accounts of the events of that day, some of which can be found here: *

(* unfortunately the "show more" links in the above are not working, so the only way I was able to read the entire accounts was by doing ctl+a to select all, then pasting the result into a notepad page).

Vernazza and Monterosso were the mostly badly affected by the landslides, although amazingly, five years on, you can barely detect the level of devastation.

The basic story is that 20" of rain fell during a 4 hour period, there were many landslides which caused unbelievable amounts of water and debris to wash down into the towns, carrying with it cars and anything else in its path. The main street in Vernazza was buried under at least 15' of mud, with the water flow reaching well above that - waist-deep at the second storey. At one point the village's main 500-gallon propane tank was ripped from its moorings and was swept through, spewing gas as it went. About half-way through the worst of it, just as the flood was reaching a critical point, something higher up in the town blocked the flow - possibly an empty school bus - causing the water to recede for a few minutes and allowing the 100s of people trapped in the lower floors of restaurants, etc. on the main street to escape to higher ground. Without that incident, many more people would likely have died.

Main street video:

I first hiked to the back of the village to see the canal that I'd seen in several videos. Just above this area is the main parking lot for the village (only essential vehicles are allowed to drive into the village itself). In the video, you see cars and trucks being swept from the parking area into this canal and presumably completely blocking it downstream before it disappears under the road closer to the sea. Note the pink and yellow buildings (and the footbridges) that can be seen in the video.

Canal flood video:

There's a story at the SaveVernazza Testimonial page about a couple who were staying in accommodation on the lowest floor of one of these apartment buildings (the account starts with: "We left feeling deep respect for the people of Vernazza").

Canal at the top end of the village

The "bridge" shown on the left in the photo below is actually the Vernazza train station. There are accounts from several of people who were trapped at the train station, the most detailed of which starts "The main street was roaring and churning". The water was running over the top of the platform:

Video showing before and after:

At 1:50 in the video you see just the top of a bright blue awning at 'ground level'. The story of the people who were in the restaurant - the Blue Marlin - is told by Jeffrey Hewitt in the account that starts: "The conviction that I had not 5 minutes before left me as quickly as the blue water in front of the bar turned to brown."  (you also just glimpse some orange fencing in the background before the camera turns away - that's the train station platform from the opposite side to the photo above).

At about 2:00 into the film, you see a lady poking in the dirt at a buried v-shaped thing. That is the very top of this chapel shown below. For the photo, I'm sitting about where the ladder is (on a raised part of the street):

(more footage showing the flood down main street and the chapel:

About 3:25 into the film, they show some ornamental balcony railings now at 'ground level' - they are the balcony railings on the right of this photo above the striped awnings:

For the final part of my visit, I climbed to the castle on the sea-side of the town and up into the tower for an amazing panorama of the village and spent about 30 minutes just gazing down:

And then it was time to go home (and I admit, I cried). Having managed to find a cafe with wifi and paid for a coffee and sent a message to Dad asking him to pick me up at La Spezia train station at 6:30, in a comedy of errors, I inadvertently took the train west to Monterosso instead of east, so had to get off and wait 25 minutes for a return train.

I got to the train station where Dad had kindly waited for me - and we promptly had a flat on his rental car 100 yrds from the station. Many kind people stopped to ask if we needed help, and I was proud to be able to answer in my bestest Italian "Grazie, ma non e necessare" - while changing the tyre (have had lots of practice with the trailer - and by comparison, rental car wheels are a doddle).

Other things:

The house my dad rented for us was in a tiny, quiet village of Beverino about 6 miles inland from the coast. The house was an old farmhouse and built a bit like a nuclear bunker inside - stone walls so thick the wifi couldn't get through in one room. The grounds outside were immaculate, with draping wisteria, fruit trees, and a lovely patio where we would eat breakfast. Unfortunately it was way too cold to swim in the spotless pool.

Emirates Airways (8 hr 40 between NY and Milan) - five thumbs up. Great service, great food, great in-flight back of seats entertainment, steamed face towels, free wifi, USB charging ports, etc. Super helpful when my bag didn't turn up at Milan.

JetBlue (~6 hr between NY and SFO) - freezing plane, $5 per movie, free wifi, a packet of five chips and a tiny bottle of water... didn't manage to get my bag onto the connecting flight at JFK-NY to Milan, so I was without half my clothes for four days.

Milan Malpensa airport - seamless check-in, explanatory signage about what's expected of you, great food for reasonable price, classical pianist playing a grand piano in the departure lounge.

JFK-NY - nastiest airport ever - no signs to give you any idea how to get to your connecting flight, rude officials who shout at you when you don't follow their (unsigned) procedures, endless unnecessary zigzag lines carrying heavy bags, $6 to "rent" a baggage cart, nonsensical procedures, and no moving walkways.

Hertz - wouldn't accept my "Debit-Visa" card as a Visa card, despite the fact that it functions as such for every other establishment it has ever been used at. Thought we were going to be stranded in Milan. Eventually rented from AVIS who used the same card without blinking. You have been warned.