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Travel and retreats: A green slice of living, in city and country

24 January 2020

Robin McKelvie heads to a Scottish isle and the Slovenian capital with serious environmental credentials

Robin McKelvie

View from An Sgùrr towards the Isle of Rum

View from An Sgùrr towards the Isle of Rum

RURAL: Eigg, Scotland

WE STEP off the ferry on the Scottish isle of Eigg full of intrigue, my two young daughters, Tara and Emma, my wife, and me. Straight away, it’s clear that we are somewhere special: apart from the no-cars rule, and the rugged hills and pristine beaches typical of a Hebridean island, there’s a sign welcom­­ing visitors to Eigg, with another underneath it hailing the island’s: “Big Green Footsteps”. Actually, I’d swap "Big" for "Giant".

A community has to be serious about crafting an eco-friendly way of life to go as far as buying their own island. But that’s exactly what hap­pened on this 12-square-mile island, situated 15 miles off the west coast of Scotland, south of the Isle of Skye and north of Mull.

Eigg made the headlines in 1997 when its islanders, aided by Greenbelt favourite Alastair McIntosh, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and the High­land Council, successfully fund-raised a £1.5-million community buy-out on behalf of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust that put an end to its history of absentee and eccentric private landlords.

Island in hand, the locals set about working to secure a greener, more sustainable future, making headlines again in 2008, when it became the world’s first island to generate enough green electricity to power itself. The mix is of wind, hydro, and solar — all community owned and run.

They haven’t stopped there. Eigg’s shop, post office, tea room and craft shop are among the facilities now also community owned. So, too, is our accommodation: one of three cosy wooden pods complete with fire pits overlooking the harbour at Galmisdale Bay, the perfect spot to look for seals and otters.

We unpack and settle in, before nip­ping down to the community shop for supplies. It is stacked with fresh local produce and ethically sourced goods.

At Galmisdale Bay’s café-bar, over fresh mussels caught off the island of Arisaig and kept fresh in a basket hanging off the pier, accompanied by beer brewed on the island by Laig Bay Brewery Co. (the world’s smallest island commercial brewery), we find a selection of Eigg’s 100-or-so locals a gregarious lot, happy to tell the island’s remarkable story.

Later, we meet Laraine and Owain, the couple behind the outdoor-activity enterprise Eigg Adventures, which organises biking, kayaking, walking, and archery on the island. They sort us out with bikes, and we head off to ex­­plore Eigg via its only proper road. We follow Laraine’s tip and make for the Singing Sands, near the tiny settle­ment of Cleadale, in the north of the island.

The beach is quintessentially Eigg: backed up by a hulk of hills, the cobalt-blue Atlantic stretches off on the other flank, and there is a view out to the Isle of Rum (another of the Small Isles, along with Eigg, Muck, and Canna). It does make an otherworldly noise. But my girls decide that Singing Sands makes more of a squeak than a song.

istock Boats moored in the bay at Galmisdale on the Isle of Eigg. The dramatic peak of An Sgùrr rises in the background

It’s refreshing not to be packing the kids into a car every day to tour, and, on the way back, we hop off our bikes and slip into the informal, unstaffed island museum: a time warp of fascina­ting bric-a-brac and memor­ab­ilia.

On Eigg, we also hunt for (and find) dinosaur fossils at Laig Bay, aided by Craig Lovatt, from Eigg Explorers, which offers guided walks around the island. We hike to Massacre Cave, otherwise known as the Cave of Francis, where up to 400 members of one family were killed by another in clan warfare in about 1577.

And, towards the end of our long weekend, we tackle An Sgùrr: the formidable-looking, 393-metre-high volcanic hill that dominates the island.

A fairly straightforward route  waves around the back of the Sgùrr, and, in a few hours, we are on top of this gem of an island, which promises beach-studded views of the other Small Isles, the Isle of Skye, and the Ard­nam­urchan peninsula on the mainland.

And so it is, with lungs full of the same clean air that fuels the island’s turbines, that we congratulate our­selves on discovering a treasure of an island that makes for the perfect guilt-free holiday escape.

Travel details

The Caledonian Sleeper (www.sleeper.scot) sweeps from London overnight, with sleeper accommodation for two adults and two children from £230, all the way to Fort William, where you connect to the legendary West Highland Line for Mallaig (adult returns from £15, children £7.50, www.scotrail.com). Here, CalMac (www.calmac.co.uk) ferries await for your final sail to Eigg (adult return from £8.40, children £4.20, bikes free). Camping pods for up to four people from £45 per night for two; additional people £5pp; under-12s free, and bikes can be hired for £15 a day (www.eiggcampingpods.com, www.eiggadventures.co.uk). For tourist information visit www.visitscotland.com.

City: Ljubljana, Slovenia

istockLjubljana Castle and the city below

strolling peaceful traffic-free streets to the Trnovski Pristan embankment, lined with elegant weeping willows. Tourists and locals animate the sun loungers and cafés along the river­bank, and, in the elegant city centre, pedest­rian­ised under Zoran Janković, the city’s mayor since 2006.

A figure who has caused controv­ersy at times, Mr Janković has over­seen the environmental developments of the Slovenian capital: not just a pedestrianised centre, but also new and protected parks, forests, and green spaces, new footbridges that reconnect the city centre with it surroundings; and car parks deep underground, with free electric "Kavaliers" for hotel guests and their luggage.

It’s quite a departure from the drab, traffic-blighted former socialist Yugo­slavian city I encountered on my first foray here, just after the country gained independence in 1991.

In 2016, Ljubljana was named the "Green Capital of Europe" for its efforts. I board the Barka, the most charming of the new flotilla of tour boats now plying the canal, purpose-built in beautifully crafted local wood, to enjoy the river before heading to the Ljubljana Botanical Garden — one of the oldest in Europe — at the heart of green Ljubljana, 15 minutes from the city. It’s the perfect place to sit, to relax, and to sip a coffee in any season.

The next morning, I’m up early to cycle around with London-style city bikes that are easily available on racks across Ljubljana, before easing around the expansive Tivoli Park with its walkways, playgrounds, cafés, and fit­ness trails. I also take in the cul­­­tural heartbeat of this youthful city at the National Gallery and the Modern Art Gallery, which, handily, sit opposite each other. In this compact city, no­­thing is far away.

Amid all its greenery, Ljubljana is also a city of churches. On my third day, I board the funicular to the 900-year-old Ljubljana Castle to take them in, as well as the castle museum, which sheds light on Ljubljana as far back as its days as the Roman city of Emona.

istockThe pink walls of the Italianate Franciscan Church of the Annunciation on the banks of the River Ljubljanica

From this lofty perch, I can not only appreciate Ljubljana’s dramatic setting — rimmed by a cauldron of snow-tipped Alpine peaks — but can also make out the unmistakable pastel-pink façade of the Italianate Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, the striking Church of St John the Baptist (where Slovenia’s Shakespeare, France Prešeren, met his great unrequited love), and the elegant St James’s.
The shrouding trees that cover the latter are said to have been a touch of hu­­-mour by the architect who designed much of the way Ljubljana looks today, Jože Plečnik, who was not a fan of this vaulting church.

I spend a day exploring the legacy of Plečnik. I trace his revamped river­banks along to the city canal, which cuts through the Bohemian suburb of Trnovo. I then ease back through sleepy Krakovo — with its bountiful city allotments — to the University Quarter. Here I find perhaps Plečnik’s most striking work: the National and University Library, and enjoy a forti­fying bela kava (milky coffee) sur­­rounded by his functional grandeur.

In Ljubljana, I dine like a king. People here appreciate quality produce culled from those Krakovo allotments and the city’s bucolic surrounds. And I discover that the best place to savour them is at Open Kitchen, at the city’s central market. Every Friday, pro­ducers and chefs sell direct to the public from stalls burgeoning with fresh produce.

I dine, and then dine again at another stall. It’s that good.

The food market is the perfect symbol of Ljubljana. This is, after all, not only a pleasingly green city-break destina­tion, but one of the green capitals of Europe; a city that offers a delicious slice of living for visitors the world over.

Robin McKelvie is author of the Bradt Guide to Ljubljana.

Travel details

For a no-fly trip, the most relaxing way to get to Ljubljana is by train, which you can do in a shade under 16 hours. Take the Eurostar from London to Paris, where you can connect to Venice, and from where you head into Austria, before the final leg to Ljubljana. You can have the trip packaged together at thetrainline.com. For tourist information visit www.slovenia.info.

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