I’m just back from Dublin where I was attending the TBEX Travel Bloggers’ conference for a few days. Having got up early to hop on the Ryanair flight, my brain is still whirring a little, fuelled only by a packet of Guinness crisps for breakfast, so I’ll get straight to the point and give you my reflections on the conference and of Dublin, which are;
That the Irish know how to throw a good party
The TBEX opening night party hosted by Failte Ireland (Failte means welcome in Gaeilge) at the Guinness Storehouse was stunning. Making my way past the stilt-walkers, flame throwers and music makers at the entrance, I wound my way up through the brick, glass and steel building, past all the brewery tour audio visuals, up all the escalators, wondering what a girl has to do to find a drink around here. On the top floor the party unfolded; I homed in on the oysters, downed a glass or two of black velvet and tested some artizan cheeses. Irish dancers dressed in black with serious faces, drummed their feet in complex patterns and the atmosphere was electric when local heros, Seo Linn gave up their gaelic version of Avvici’s Wake me up, with choir, drummers and an Irish dancing trio. The night was a complete celebration of the best of Ireland and launched the conference off on a high. Here’s the video that will have your foot tapping;
And my Vine as I made my way up through the Guinness Storehouse to finally find a pint of the black stuff;
That Jameson whiskey beats any Scotch and Bourbon you could mention
As a speaker I was lucky to be invited to a bonus tour of the Old Jameson distillery before the opening party, with fabulous cocktails like the Whiskey Sour which hit the spot. Naturally we got the whole story of how the whiskey is distilled and how the distillery cats got stuffed, although what stuck in my head was that the angels get their share as the amber liquid ages and evaporates in oak barrels. Lucky Angels. At the end we sat down to a whiskey tasting where the smooth, triple distilled Jameson was pitched against the Scotch and American whiskey and were left in no doubt which was our favourite.
That the Irish are super friendly and love a good story
I lost count of the number of times I was wished Céad míle fáilte, A Hundred Thousand Welcomes, with that delicious Irish lilt. The Dubliners love to stop and chat, share the craic over a pint of Guinness and they seem to have all the time in the world to find out what you’re doing, where you’re going and what you think of Dublin. On the Wild Wicklow tour, our guide Denis managed to drive the coach along narrow roads, avoiding Irish traffic jams ( a flock of sheep on the road) while throwing out a constant stream of entertaining stories. Did people really come to Bog Snorkel in the Wicklow mountains or find the monks’ buried treasure under the turf or go skinny dipping at Sandy Cove (you go in a man and come out a woman)? Who knows, but I’m happy to believe any tale told to me by an Irishman.
That being a speaker can be stressful but it’s worth it
I suppose that many speakers put themselves forward as I did, partly because they want to raise their profile and partly because they have some useful insights that they want to share. Although I was a speaker at the first European TBEX conference in Copenhagen, time had somewhat dimmed the memory of how much time it takes to prepare, write and practice a presentation, if it’s not something you do every day. Not being one of those people who like to wing it, much of my spare time in the weeks before the conference went into my presentation and the accompanying article, on How to create quick and easy videos for your blog. Of course once I’d delivered the talk, I felt a glow of achievement and could relax and enjoy the rest of the conference.
That Networking is a goldmine
Conferences like TBEX are great for a number of things. You get to learn from people who have in depth knowledge in a specific aspect of blogging, but you could probably learn this from reading articles. You get to see a new place where the conference is being held during the pre and post-conference trips but you could always come back another time. In my view the golden opportunity at a conference like TBEX is the chance to network and find out what other bloggers are up to, what’s working for them, what trends are developing in blogging and how you can be part of them. The thing that stuck out for me from these conversations was how quickly the travel blogging community is professionalising itself and how travel bloggers are now being paid by brands to participate in their marketing campaigns. The concept of the paid trip is one that I don’t being remember being mentioned much at TBEX Girona, but was on everyone’s lips at TBEX Dublin.
That I want to see more of Dublin and Ireland
I hadn’t been to Dublin before, and now I’m wondering why, as it’s only a 45 minute flight from Bristol. Perhaps I had in my mind that in Ireland it always rains. As our Wild Wicklow guide Denis said “If you can see the mountains, it’s going to rain and if you can’t see the mountains it’s already raining”. But who cares about a soft day when everyone you meet chats to you like an old friend and the music and the Guinness is flowing and the countryside has 40 shades of green. After TBEX I feel it’s not If but When I’ll come back to Dublin to explore it properly and I’ve been already been watching the video of the waves crashing along the Wild Atlantic Way and planning which route we’ll take and whether it’ll be by campervan, bike, kayak or all three.
The Wild Wicklow Mountains
The Doubletree by Hilton, Dublin
As a speaker my room in the hotel was covered for the 3 days of the conference and I booked an additional night on my own account. I found that the Doubletree Dublin was a great conference venue with plenty of space for our Doubletree sponsored coffee breaks with the signature warm Doubletree cookies. The meeting and presentation spaces were excellent as was the buffet lunch in the B bar. The hotel is currently undergoing a renovation programme which meant all the public areas were stylish and modern and I was fortunate to have a spacious room that had been completely renovated, although other bloggers were not quite so lucky and told me their pre-renovation rooms were looking tired and dated.
While I loved my room and the stylish pubic areas, I had a couple of reservations about the hotel, one of which was that the hotel wifi in my room (as opposed to the TBEX wifi which was fine) was grindingly slow, to the point that I could barely do any work except check a few e-mails. As our keynote speaker Chip Conley, founder of the boutique hotel group Joie de Vivre, said in his keynote, wifi is like the plumbing these days – if it doesn’t work you’re failing to meet the most basic expectations of your guests. I also found that the service in the hotel was friendly, in that warm Irish way, but not especially attentive or fast. It’s lovely to delight your customers with a warm cookie, but get the basics right first. The video of my room is below.
The keynote speakers were outstanding
It was touching to hear Chip Conley, who’s had so much business success, talk of the loneliness of being a new blogger. We all know that feeling that you’re putting your heart and soul into writing something you care passionately about, only to experience the deafening silence of Zero comments. The trick is to have a mate like best-selling author Tim Ferris, who invites you to write a guest post that brings you hundreds of comments, to keep your spirits up.
Photographer John Minihan was in conversation with Alistair MacKenzie (move over Michael Parkinson) with a few of his black and white photos as prompts. I loved his story about how he got the famous photo of Lady Diana Spencer at the kindergarten where she worked with the light filtering through her skirt to show off her legs. Later, when she was being hounded by the photographers, he felt sorry for her and turned up at her flat with a bunch of flowers, which she opened the door to accept. There’s a reason Bono can live just outside Dublin and still go to the pub without everyone asking for his autograph. The Irish (or John at least) feel there’s a line that you just don’t cross even if there’s money in it.
Dan and Audrey from Uncornered Market told us about the time they were in Burma when the politics had killed the tourist trade and all the local businesses and the families behind them were suffering. It reminded me that tourism is the main livelihood for many small businesses and as bloggers we should put aside any sense of entitlement and do what we can to leave the world a better place.
And the other speakers I loved
I didn’t get to see too many speakers on Thursday, as the time before and after my own talk was occupied with doing a dry run in front of my hotel room mirror and unwinding by chatting to some of the bloggers who came up to me afterwards. I was sorry to miss Gary Bembridge on how to Write your Blog Positioning statement, as I’ve found his articles on this topic really helpful in refining what my blog is about and who I am writing for ( a stylish women enjoying life in her fabulous 40s and 50s who is always up for a bit of adventure as she travels with friends and family – in case you hadn’t guessed).
Then there was Ian Cleary from Razor Social who kept it lighthearted with leprechauns and Irish humour while educating us on 21 Powerful Social Media and Technology Tips. The message I took away from Ted Murphy of Izea from all the research and stats he produced was that brands in the US are prepared to pay good money to bloggers to access their audiences. Companies in the UK, however, are a few years behind and still think that bloggers are enthusiastic amateurs who are jolly lucky if they’re given a free flight or hotel stay. Katja Presnal was evangelical about Instagram, a niche that she has really made her own and she came up with beautiful presentation, although she was preaching to the converted as far as I’m concerned as I love Instagram – you can get Katja’s free Instagram e-book on her Skimbaco Lifestyle blog.
So that’s it folks, I can normally find a bit of constructive chriticism, but this time it was all good as far as I’m concerned. Top conference in TBEX, top destination in Dublin. I’ll be back to both.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
After walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc in September, I was pleased to take a somewhat less arduous stroll in the Pyrenees at Vall de Núria later in the month, for a bit of relaxation after the intensive networking of the TBEX conference that I attended in Girona. This was one of the post conference trips organised by the Costa Brava Tourism board who were keen to show us the highlights of their region, so I set off from Girona with a group of bloggers, who included my blogging friends Barbara, Simon, Laurel and Isabel with whom I shared an apartment in Girona.
The train journey up to Vall de Nuria
Our journey on the Cremellera or “Rack Railway” up to Vall de Núria was quite as interesting as our visit to the valley itself, starting at Ribes de Freser and stopping at the other stations of Ribes Enllac, Ribes Via and Queralbs to take on more passengers. The railway rises 1000 metres in altitude and the railway tracks have teeth, like a cog wheel, to stop the train slipping back down the mountain. The local people have decided not to build a road up to the high valley, to keep it special and unspoilt, so the railway is the only way up to the valley unless you fancy a 4 hour hike up the old pilgrim’s road. The railway was completed in 1931, being built with dynamite, pickaxes and hard labour and is a tourist attraction in its own right, with a background audio commentary, playing throughout the journey in French, Spanish and English.
Luckily, having got on at the first station, we were able to find seats, but as more and more people joined the train we were surrounded by chattering families with children in buggies and a few walkers with poles stuffed down the sides of their rucksacks. Having been that hiker with those walking poles on the Tour de Mont Blanc, I could imagine how these walkers couldn’t wait to get away from the daytrippers and into the wilder and more remote corners of the Pyrenees. Today, however, I was happy to gaze out of the window at the rocky mountain landscape where the cliff faces, which would be cascading with waterfalls in the springtime, were now bone dry following a summer without rain. As there is only one train track, we stopped halfway up the mountain at a passing place where the trains coming up and down the mountains can cross over. In the distance I could see tiny figures tracing their way along the walking trail that leads up to Vall de Núria.
Arriving at Vall de Núria
The train passed through the final tunnel and skirted alongside the lake, depositing us at the small station beside an imposing building sitting in the bowl of the valley. At the heart of this building is the church sanctuary with the wings of the hotel, restaurant, gift shop and information centre stretching out on either side. To the front is a grassy area in front of the lake and the whole view is framed by mountains on all sides. I was a little taken back to find such a large complex in this high valley of the Pyrenees, but apart from the riding stables, chapel and cable car station nearby there were no other buildings in the valley. We watched an interesting film in the information centre, then took a stroll around to see what else was there. My friends Laurel, Isabel and Simon had a craving to stretch their legs on a long walk and decided to walk back down the pilgrim’s way, to meet the group back at the bottom, so Barbara and I spent most of the afternoon together exploring what the valley had to offer.
The name Núria means “place of water’ and the warm Mediterranean air rising to meet the cold air of the mountains, creates one of the highest areas of rainfall in Catalunya in this valley. The streams and rivers flow into the lake which is dammed at one end, and then continue to cascade down the mountains. They say that if you live up here, you’ll rarely get a headache, as the blue aconite that grows on the mountain slopes is a cure for migraine and the medicinal properties wash into the drinking water.
This is the high Pyrenees, close to the border with France, and you can see the path that people used during the Spanish civil war to pass from France to Spain. The black specks circling above us were vultures, gliding on the air currents and looking out for dead animals at the start of the hunting season. On these mountain slopes, you might spot mountain deer and the marmot, as well as the mouflon, a wild sheep with curved horns which the farmers don’t like as they spread disease among the sheep and mate with them creating offspring that can’t be sold for meat.
In winter, Vall de Núria becomes a small ski resort, where people come by train from Barcelona, and these gentle slopes are ideal for families who stay in the hotel. On the Sunday in September that we were there, it seems to be where the locals head for a family day out, spreading their picnics out in front of the lake and taking their children on a horseback ride, or to feed the ducks.
Vall de Núria, a place of pilgrimage
Vall de Núria has been drawing pilgrims to the area for many centuries, seeking to emulate the simple life of San Gil (Saint Giles in English) who arrived in the area around 700AD. He lived the life of a hermit in caves around the valley, spending his time with the local shepherds, and is thought to have carved the painted image of the Virgin Mary that now sits in the chapel above the Sanctuary. The religious symbols of Vall de Núria are the cross, which San Gil brought with him to the valley, the cooking pot which he used to cook the meals he shared with the shepherds, and the bell with which he summoned them at meal times. The 8th September is the feast of Our Lady of Núria, when the carved wooden statue is carried in a procession around the valley.
Legend has it that the carved image of the Virgin was hidden in a cave when San Gil later had to flee from persecution. A few centuries later, a pilgrim called Amadeo was called in a dream to come to Núria and build a chapel there. He searched for and finally found the carved statue which San Gil had hidden, together with a cross, bowl and bell and brought them to the chapel he built. We visited the recently restored chapel where there is a copy of the wooden statue. The restoration had been paid for by donations from all the ladies in Spain who are called Núria which is a popular girl’s name – each of the donors having a plaque with their name on it inside the chapel.
Just inside the main Sanctuary there is a side room where women who are seeking fertility come to put their head inside a large metal pot and have the bell rung above their head, to pray for children. I remember when I was in the Quadisha Valley in Lebanon, there was a similar chapel at St Anthony’s monastery full of cooking pots brought as an offering by couples who were unable to have children, the pot being symbolic of the pregnant mother’s belly. If you were a Spanish girl named Nuria, looking to start a family quickly, this would be the perfect place to come on your honeymoon.
Walking around Vall de Núria
After lunch, Barbara and I walked on past the chapel of St Gil and the assortment of ponies, mules and ducks that were laid on for families and up to the end of the lake, where the dam across created a barrier that you could walk across. I’m not sure if we heard any water nymphs calling up from the depths of the lake to urge us to protect the natural environment for future generations, as we’d seen in the information video. From the dammed end of the lake we could see further down the valley over the small stone arch bridge beyond which you could climb up for a viewpoint. We also took the cable car up to the Alberg station where there was a cafe with views towards the Torrent de Fontedra.
From there it was an easy walk back down, passing the pilgrimage stops and crosses along the way, part of a stations of the cross in the area, which is covered by snow in winter, but a popular walking route in summer. If you’re interested in walking, there is a useful map available from the information centre detailing all the walking routes around the valley, certainly enough to keep you going for a few days, and that’s without even leaving the valley. Other paths go through the black pine forests and up to caves that by tradition were used by San Gil and Amadeu as well as high-points for a view over the valleys. You can also choose to hike both up and down the mountain as our friends had done, along the”Camí Vell” that was used by pilgrims to reach the Sanctuary in the Vall de Núria
If you’re in Catalunya, I highly recommend a visit to Vall de Núria as a relaxing way to spend time in the Pyrenees, which has something to offer everyone who love the mountains, from families with young children to serious walkers.
Visitor Information for Vall de Núria
More information for visiting in both summer and winter is available on the Vall de Núria Website
The Cremellara or Rack Railways starts at Ribes de Freser which can be reached by the RENFE train from Barcelona, Girona and other Spanish cities. There is free car parking at Ribes Enllac, Ribes Via and Queralbs and the price is around €22 per adult for a 1 day return train ticket plus cable car , €13 for children. The trains normally run hourly throughout the day.
Accommodation in Vall de Núria is at Hotel Vall de Nuria where there are 65 rooms and 12 apartments to choose from
My thanks to Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona who hosted the visit to Vall de Núria.
What the other bloggers said about Vall de Núria
(If you have also written about Vall de Núria, I’d love you to add your link in the comments )
Barbara Wiebel – Hole in the Donut – Vall de Núria in the Spanish Pyrenees, Sanctuary then and now
Laurel Robbins – Monkeys and Mountains – Hiking the Vall de Núria, Pyrenees
Laurence Norah – Finding the Universe – Exploring the Núria Valley in the Pyrenees
Isabel Romano – Diario de a Bordo – Vall de Nuria post #TBEX trip
Simon Falvo – Wild about Travel -Pyrenees – Rugged and beautiful Vall de Núria
CC Chapman – Vall de Núria through my lens
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
Today I’d like to give a shout out to the Passport Party Project - started by Tracey Friley of OneBrownGirl which has the aim of helping more teenage girls in the USA the opportunity to get their own passport and get out into the world for life changing experiences.
Tracey pitched the idea at TBEX Vancouver in June last year and fortunately Expedia were listening and stepped up to support the idea by offering a prize of 6 trips of a lifetime that can be won by girls who have participated in the Passport Party and applied for their very first passport. Here’s the Press Release from Expedia giving more information about their Sponsorship. The US State department for passports have also created a Passport day on March 10 to enable applicants to get their passport more easily in regional centres around the US.
Why do I love the idea of the Passport Party Project?
I live in the UK where it’s no big deal to get a passport at birth for your baby. We have Europe on our doorstop and foreign lands are a ferry ride across the channel or an inexpensive flight away from our local airport. But I know that with the USA being such a big place with plenty of holiday opportunities and flights abroad being so expensive many of our friends across the pond don’t travel outside their own country until they’re grown up and maybe not even then. And I think that’s a shame.
I have a 16 year old daughter who has been travelling since she was tiny on family holidays in Europe, to visit family in Greece each year and even further afield. She has grown confident in dealing with new situations, she has seen how other people live, how different customs can distinguish us but how we are all essentially the same in what we hope and dream for. She has met children who walk up to 2 hours each day to get to school but seen that happiness is not necessarily connected to an affluent lifestyle.
Last year she was on a school trip to Nepal, where she and her friends trekked through the Annapurna foothills, visited a nature reserve and pitched their tents on the old rice paddies beside a school high in the mountains for a community construction project.
Now she’s taken on a position at her school which involves raising money for worthwhile causes and she’s planning to take a gap year before university to travel. My wonderful daughter is citizen of the world and I believe that travel will give her boundless confidence and kindness in whatever she ventures – that’s why I’d like to wish the same life changing experiences on other girls of her age.
Read more about Sophie-Anne’s travels in Nepal
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey