Before you think that all was lost, I did manage to get up a mountain on my Chamonix weekend. I took the train up to Montenvers where I intended to visit the Mer de Glace glacier cave. Alas, it was closed that day due to the weather.  It was snowing fairly heavily, unlike down in the valley where it was raining. Clearly, very few attractions were going to open for me on this weekend. Still, I had a look inside the Glaciorium, which told me about the glacier.  And then, in the best of French tradition, I went to lunch at the hotel next door … at the Grand Hotel du Montenvers.

~ Spotted Cow



Runner in the snow

I went to Chamonix – the French ski resort – on a weekend in early January. It rained. The snow was slushy and horrible and most of the ski runs were closed because of heightened avalanche risk. So, what did I do? I took my trusty camera out for a walk in the drizzle and took photos of the forest.

It wasn’t easy walking conditions, but there were a few people about. I spotted this runner out on his daily jog. He looked quite hardy. Or foolhardy.

~ Spotted Cow

Cold weather trips

Cross country skiing on a frozen lake

Ahh, it’s October and my thoughts turn to cooler weather activities and exploration … although I’m not pencilling anything as cold as the -30°C cross-country skiing on a Finnish frozen lake as in the picture above.

There are a couple of things which are already booked into the calendar:

  1. Liverpool city weekend. Twenty years in London and I’ve not been to Liverpool. I’ll have to participate in something suitably Beatles-reminiscent in addition to the Antony Gormley beach sculptures that are the real purpose of the trip.
  2. Lille Christmas market. The London-Lille Eurostar train journey is only an hour and a half each way. So, we can do a day trip to the Christmas markets. Amazing! I’ll have to start practising my French.

I’m also contemplating several other things :

  • A glassblowing weekend course in Wiltshire. I would return to London with Christmas baubles crafted by my own fair hand.
  • The West Highland railway in Scotland. The journey is consistently voted as the most scenic railway in the UK, and you will have seen it in the Harry Potter movies. It looks like a very romantic trip, with the snow capped mountains in the background.
  • Winter walks among the Christmas card scenes in the Austrian Tyrol.

I’m in my element – dreaming, researching and planning trips.

~ Spotted Cow

I wish it would snow properly

Snow in Leicester Square

It’s been very cold in London for the last two weeks and I wish it would snow properly like it’s doing in Scotland and other bits of the country. Like it did in the winter of 2010 / 2011 when the city turned into a magical white wonderland. At the moment, it’s just cold and what little snow we’ve had hasn’t settled. It’s a little bit unsatisfying. Hmph.

~ Spotted Cow

Christmas cards

Letter box

It’s December and I’m waiting for the Christmas cards to slip through the mailbox.

Christmas cards originated in the UK. Sir Henry Cole – first director of the Victoria & Albert museum – liked writing greetings to his family and friends, and found it a bit of a faff to write the same thing over & over again during the holiday season. In 1843, he thus commissioned a Christmas card with the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”, which we still use today.

I love the Christmas card ritual. It’s a chance to engage with friends that I haven’t managed to keep up with through the year because we all have busy lives. That said, I’m always a bit disappointed by the ones I receive that only have signed names – the odd one doesn’t even have that – and no personal message. Why bother, I wonder. Although, they did think of me, so I should be appreciative of small mercies !

~ Spotted Cow

Christmas cards

Snap chat. White-out

On the edge of a lake

Winter holidays are around the corner and I thought I’d do a post on taking pictures in the snow. Have you looked back on your snowy photographs and thought that the snow looks sullied and grey?

Without getting too technical about it, your camera meter automatically adjusts for a mid-grey. That works in most instances because there is a range of different colour light that averages out to that mid-grey. However, if you have a bright white scene, it ends up turning your “average white” into the same mid-grey.

The easiest way to deal with this is to over-expose your shots by one or two notches. If you’ve never moved your camera from it’s automatic settings, look for the (+/-) button. You might have to read the manual to discover how it works on your camera. The default setting is 0 and you want to click it to +1 or +2. If the scene is very bright and white, it’ll need to be at +2. Dial down toward +1 depending on the proportion of coloured objects in the frame.

Keep checking your pictures. With a little bit of practice, you’ll become accustomed to the settings that are likely to work.

If it’s very cold and you’re going to be outdoors for awhile, a set of fingerless gloves with mitten covers come in handy. Mind you, the photos here were taken in Northern Finland, and the temperature was between -20°C and -30°C. I wore glove liners, fingerless gloves and big padded glove mitts … and I had to take off the mitts whenever I wanted to take a picture.

Remember to carry a spare battery in your pocket. Batteries run low very quickly in cold weather. When you come indoors from a long spell in the cold, put your camera in its bag in a cool place. Heated rooms cause condensation.

Most of all, enjoy the monochromatic fun. Let me know how you get on.

~ Spotted Cow

Cross country skiing across a frozen lake Frozen rope bridge White scene

Sun or snow?

The week between Christmas and New Year – where should you go on holiday? Sun or snow? One year we decided that we wanted a really truly winter holiday. So we booked ourselves onto a week’s wilderness activity trip in northern Finland with Exodus. We were based at Basecamp Oulanka in their toasty log cabins. It was absolutely fantastic and we had a really wonderful time.

Oddly, we didn’t feel the cold too much and it was -30°C at its coldest. Your eyelashes freeze into mini icicles outside. The warmest day was a sweltering -11°C.  The camp kitted us out with the appropriate clothes. As the Nordic saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

We were active the entire time it was daylight.  There were lots of things to do – dog sledding, cross country skiing, walking trails, snow-shoeing, building igloos, sledding down hills, ice-fishing, climbing an ice wall. There were day trips out to a reindeer farm and to a downhill skiing resort. After an exhilarating day out, the sauna was a daily late afternoon ritual. Then, a book by the fire, dinner, chatting with other people and a few drinks. Ahhh.

One night, we saw the Northern Lights. It wasn’t as techni-coloured as some of the pictures I’ve seen, but an impressive sheet of light nonetheless. And there was the option of sleeping out in the igloos overnight.  How many people can say they’ve done that?

~ Spotted Cow

Basecamp Oulanka

Snow walk

Snowy bridge

Cross Country Skiing

Vienna. Eating to stay warm.

Let’s go back to somewhere seasonally cold.  Vienna in December is -1°C to 3°C.  It didn’t take away from the atmosphere of the Christmas markets, but honestly, it felt colder than that. Brrr. Regular pitstops at the hot chocolate and mulled wine stalls were essential. We’d linger for warmth at the stalls cooking large pans of potatoes. I could barely get my fingers out of my gloves to take photographs.

It brings to the fore, food as fuel. We dropped into the Esterhazykeller for lunch. It’s a traditional Viennese wine tavern that’s been around since 1683.  It’s subterranean – well, it’s a cellar –  and you sit in cosy wooden booths among the caverns of vaults. We ate roast pork with dumplings and cabbage, as suggested by the guidebook, and we drank beer.  It was probably delicious and nourishing, but I don’t remember. All I could think was that I needed to get in some food to pad the sides for another foray into the cold.

~ Spotted Cow

Esterhazykeller sign Esterhazykeller insideVienna Christmas market Vienna lebkuchen stall

Night in an Igloo

On our trip to northern Finland, I slept in quite an unusual place.  I slept in an igloo for one night! Although I didn’t build it – I watched the adults shovel and pat the snow into place –  I found the igloo experience very enjoyable.

Initially, I was quite reluctant considering it was -35 degrees Celsius outside. But the guide at Basecamp Oulanka explained that it would keep the heat in. She was right.  It turned out to be a snug zero degrees. I slept in the igloo with a few other kids who were at Basecamp, plus an adult.  It was cosy!  We slept in very warm sleeping bags and as the night progressed it felt warmer due to our warm bodies.  In fact, I discovered that igloo water was dripping on my feet by morning. If you ever get the chance, definitely try sleeping in an igloo for a night.

~ Chocolate Milk Cow



Dog sledding in -30°C

Yup, you heard me right the first time. Minus 30 degrees. You wear 2 sets of long undies, 2 sets of fleece pyjamas, inner jacket, outer jacket, yet another jacket on top, glove liners, gloves, big gloves, sock liners, 2 pairs of socks, woolly hat and hood. Then you’re ready to get on the sled.

It’s really fun. You feel the cold a bit, but more than anything it’s quite exhilarating. The dogs are quite fast and you have to be careful not to slide up the side of the path and tip the sled over.

The dogs are gorgeous. They have big eyes and perky ears and lots of thick glossy fur.

We did the dog-sledding in Finland. I’ll talk more about our Finnish winter holiday next time.

~ Spotted Cow



Christmas, neither at home nor away

Baby Cow closing in on little deer

Ever fancied not having any responsibility on Christmas Day? Let someone else organise the food, the tree, and the entertainment. We did it one year when the idea of all of us in a small London flat with nowhere to go seemed a bit crampy. Plus, we were due to fly out on Boxing Day.

Our choice was Ashdown Park Hotel in East Sussex where we stayed from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. It was marvellous. The grounds are enormous and on the doorstep of Ashdown Forest.  This is Winnie The Pooh country.  You can borrow mountain bikes and cycle on the bumpy forest paths.  There are plenty of secret corners and hidden gardens to explore, and you’ll encounter the wild deer that roam the estate.  We had a go at croquet – badly. There’s a golf course. And we discovered a llama park nearby.

The youngsters can use the remainder of their energy in the swimming pool while the adults enjoy spa services or one of the reading spots in front of the fire.

It goes without saying that there is an abundance of food. We didn’t go hungry and the children had far too much chocolate and cake, as well as surprise treats under the tree and on their pillows – both from us and courtesy of the hotel.

We don’t know if we’d do it quite like that again. But it suited us on that one occasion and the experience was thoroughly enjoyable.

Spotted Cow


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Cologne Christmas markets

Seven weeks till Christmas, someone said.  I reckon it’s  time to start posts with Christmas and winter themes.

I love the German Christmas markets.  I say that, but I’ve only been to the one in Cologne and it’s my blueprint for how all of them should be.

Cologne has seven Christmas markets, and my favourites are the big one in front of the imposing Cologne Cathedral and the somewhat nostalgic one in the Old Town.  The markets are open all day, but they’re most atmospheric at night. It’s the combination of the crisp cold air, the Christmas trees & lights, children laughing in the skating rink and smells of gluhwein (mulled wine) and roasting potatoes and spitting sausages. It feels like Christmas in a movie.

I love the stalls that sell crafts and wooden toys and Christmas decorations. I bought a wooden woodpecker which pecks down a pole … and it was subsequently named Zoe Woodpecker by one of our youngsters.  I also buy the ginger biscuits called Lebkuchen, which are almost an art form.  They’re so pretty that I don’t want to eat them.  I still have stale ones, still in their plastic wrappers, the souvenirs of Christmas pasts.

Spotted Cow

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