This is an edited version of an article I wrote for the Australian Friends of the Camino Chronicle (No 38 September 2021). (*wukalina is always written in lower case based on several local Tasmanian Aboriginal languages).
I embarked on the wukalina Walk* in late March 2021 with 3 friends, plus 5 other ‘whitefella’ walkers – who all proved to be wonderful travelling companions. A 4-day journey, owned and led by First Nations people, this Walk gives non-Aboriginal people an opportunity to listen, learn and gain understanding of the significance of cultural connection. It’s an experience provided with a warm spirit of sharing knowledge and friendship – without side-stepping the dark history of European invasion and injustice which so severely impacted on Tasmania’s indigenous people.
It starts in Launceston, at the Aboriginal Elders Centre.. Here we met our palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal)guides and support staff, and were introduced to the stories and customs of their people through the paintings, photos and quilts that hang on the walls of the Centre. The yarning that was to continue throughout our journey also began here. Lead guide, Hank, a man of deep knowledge, wisdom and humour had us laughing, thinking and learning before even setting off in the minibus that took us 3 hours away to Mt William (wukalina) for the start of the Walk.
The walk operates from late September to April and involves days of hiking through bushland and beach. Walking level is mostly easy to moderate, though the climb to the top of Mt William at the start of the journey is steep and rocky in parts, and the beach walk on Day 3 is long, and can be tough in windy conditions. But the view from the top of Mt William gives the opportunity to see the country to be crossed in coming days. On a clear day it’s possible to see all the way to the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait to where Tasmanian Aborigines were ‘removed’ in the early days of colonisation. The Islands were a grim and inhospitable place to live in the 1800s, but they remain highly significant to the community today. Hank and Carleeta, a young palawa woman guide, told us many yarns about the importance of the ‘birding’ season that takes place on the islands every year in April/May when the whole community moves back to catch and process the mutton birds that migrate from the Arctic.
On descending Mt William, the walk took us approximately 12 km through bushland to our first camp. Along the way we saw forests of grass trees (yuckas) and learned about some of the plants that provide indigenous tucker. The going was slow in parts to avoid hundreds of giant webs of the orb spiders. Fortunately, the guides cleared them gently. Snakes were also evident, so we were encouraged to wear gaiters…. just in case.
On the second and third days, we walked along the wild and beautiful northern coast where we learned more of the palawa history and culture. Walking on white sandy beaches, past huge rocks and crashing waves, we heard stories about the abundance of food which the pakana (Aboriginal women) traditionally fetched from the sea, including crayfish, scallops, and even baby seals. The women’s hunting skills were, of course, exploited by the sealers in the early days of the colony, with many women kept away from their families and treated with extreme cruelty.
Along the beach, we found sharks’ eggs, shells for making necklaces and strands of huge kelp which was used for basket-making. We were also shown tracks of Tassie devils, wallabies and other wildlife, and advised to avoid the hundreds of blue-bottle stingers that had been washed up on shore.
Then, respectfully following the guides’ request to walk barefoot and not take photos, we were led to a site of great cultural significance – a sheltered place in the dunes where generations of palawa met for thousands of years to share food, stories and celebrations. Sadly, this beautiful and remote place is now being slowly destroyed by beach-combers and dune-buggies, simply through a lack of understanding of the wealth of history and anthropological evidence that it contains.
Just like the Camino de Santiago in Spain, there’s so much more to the wukalina Walk than just the walking. For example, being welcomed to Country with a smoking ceremony under the stars was an unforgettable experience for all of us. The fire-pit sits in a clearing in front of the large open dome of the architecturally-designed main camp building. This stunning structure is built from beautiful Tasmanian timbers and was a fantastic sight as we stumbled into camp at the end of the first day. The building extends into a kitchen/dining room, and then bathroom facilities. Wooden walkways lead to the sleeping huts which are built from the same timber and shaped like traditional aboriginal shelters. With comfy beds and kangaroo rugs we spent two nights at this camp (krakani lumi).
Other welcome surprises were the flutes of champagne and gourmet platters of oysters, scallops, cheeses and wallaby salami that appeared when we arrived. This set the standard for the remaining three days. Superb food and wine – maybe not exactly traditional tucker – but always served with flair and an indigenous twist.
The third and final night of the walk was spent in one of the lighthouse keeper’s cottages at larapuna, Eddystone Light, on land that has been leased to the Aboriginal Elders for 40 years. When handed back to the original owners, the two cottages were in a bad state of repair and inhabited by local wombats! With generous philanthropic assistance and many hours of volunteer work, the first cottage has been beautifully renovated and furnished by the community. It provided a place of warmth and safety for our last night.
The storms that had been battering the east coast of mainland Australia arrived at larapuna during the night. We woke to gale force winds and heavy rain – and were grateful it hadn’t arrived a day earlier. Despite the wild weather we all made a 5-minute dash for the lighthouse – now surrounded by a moat! – so that we could climb the spiral staircase to the top and look out over the wild sea and the Bay of Fires. Visibility was near-zero but it was worth it.
Another dash back to the cottage and we were drenched. But after a welcome cuppa and a change of clothes, we boarded the mini-bus for the return trip to Launceston.
There is so much to take-away from the wukalina Walk – new friendships formed, knowledge gained and a better understanding of the past and present history of Aboriginal settlement, British colonial invasion, exploitation and destruction. We came away with a greater awareness that the way forward, for the benefit of all Australians, must be through truth-telling, treaty and Constitutional recognition.
After limping along St Patrick’s Way in Northern Ireland (see previous Post) I flew to Bilbao in Spain – though this trip was not without its difficulties either.
I don’t know what I’ve done to jinx travel arrangements in recent years – for example, the flight problems I had when trying to get from Jersey to Canada in 2016. Now, trying to fly from Ireland to Bilbao proved just as difficult and frustrating. For some reason the flight from Belfast to Gatwick was delayed, which meant I missed the connecting flight to Spain. Yet again, I had to stay overnight at the airport, then fill in an interminably long day until I could move on. Eventually arrived in Bilbao at around midnight – and then to the BnB at 1am. (An interesting BnB it was too … up 4 flights of dimly-lit stairs, onto a landing littered with toys and boots, into the main front room of the apartment filled with sleeping bodies, and at last into ‘my’ room which obviously belonged to a little girl – presumably one of the sleepers in the living room. I met the family next morning, along with other lodgers in the other children’s bedrooms. Mum is a single mum who makes a living letting out the rooms when she can. We all shared the small kitchen and bathroom and everything worked out well)
Anyway … at last I was in Bilbao. Seeing the Guggenheim had been on my bucket list for several years, so it was naturally my first port of call, though I did enjoy the walk along the River Nervion, past the big covered Ribera Market and the old buildings in the quarter (Casa Viejo) where I was staying.
It’s hard to find words to describe the magnificent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Designed by architect, Frank Gehry, the building is awe-inspiring … a huge sculpture-like structure on the riverside. Both the exterior and interior are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the art pieces inside and out just add to the wonder. There were several exhibitions available during my visit – one being huge, colourful woollen and fabric decorative sculptures hanging from every level, twisting and linking different points throughout the gallery.
I wish I could remember all the artists’ names – but all exhibitions were fantastic. Here are a few more photos of art on display:
On my second day, I took the funicular railway up the mountain – a very steep ride. There’s a lovely park at the summit and great views over the city.
All too soon, it was time to leave this lovely city and take the train to Santiago de Compostela, with the faint hope of catching up with Ben at the end of his Camino.
SANTIAGO DE COMOPOSTELA September 2016
It felt very strange returning to Santiago by train – almost felt like cheating, particularly when I saw pilgrims everywhere who must have walked for weeks along one of the many Camino paths. At least I had a backpack and hiking shoes and I had recently completed St Patrick’s Way in Ireland, so I guess I blended in. But it was very different from my time here in 2012, when I walked into this beautiful city with Bob and Nicole, my true Camino buddies.
This time I was alone, as even Ben had been and gone. We’d had communication difficulties over the past week or two, mainly because he’d lost his phone somewhere along the Way. Also (I found out later) he’d arrived in Santiago over a week before me, but couldn’t afford to hang around waiting. He’d had a ticket to fly home from Lisbon, so he’d made his way down through Portugal and waited out his last days in Europe living on next to no money. Such a pity we didn’t connect.
I had time to fill before moving on to Madrid, so took the opportunity to do the bus trip to Muxia and Finisterre – something I hadn’t done in 2012. Many people walk on to Finisterre (‘the end of the world’) after completing their Camino in Santiago, but I had neither the time nor the energy to do any more kilometres on foot after the previous 6 weeks of walking across Spain.
Anyway the bus trip was great, in beautiful weather. The coastal scenery is stunning in that area and it was exceedingly pleasant to be seeing it from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach.
It was 50 years since I was last in Madrid (back in the mid-60s in the old Kombi van!). Of course I didn’t remember a thing – but I was very impressed with the city this time. I’d taken the train from Santiago, so arrived at some huge long-distance train station and had to find my way into the central part. As always, with the help of a few kind people, I found my way onto the suburban train line and eventually discovered my pre-booked hotel, just a short stroll from Puerta del Sol, one of the busiest plazas in the city. Being Spain, of course everything was still swinging late at night … a really happy place with crowds, music, statues and lights.
Couldn’t have picked a better location to stay – and my small 2-star hotel was very comfortable. The following days were spent exploring the city – the galleries, the royal palace, the Plaza Mayor and all the little streets, bars, markets and shops nearby. I let go of my prejudices here and (somewhat reluctantly) took the Hop-On , Hop-Off bus to make my way around the city. It was very hot, and the galleries etc were sometimes several blocks or more apart, so it served a purpose …. but I still didn’t like being on a bus filled with noisy tourists.
Madrid is full of treasures – one really needs weeks to savour it all. I visited the Prado (of course) and stared at Picasso’s Guernica for a long while, along with thousands of other artworks in this magnificent museum. Also explored the Royal Palace and the Reina Sofia gallery, but I think I only covered the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the art collections in this city.
I was keen to see more of Spain, so made two short trips (a couple of days each) to Toledo and Segovia – both less than an hour’s train ride away. Toledo, the old walled city high on the hill, is another wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site. In particular, the Cathedral and the narrow, winding lanes of the Casco Historica (Old Town) make Toledo well worth a visit. There are hundreds of historic sites – palaces, churches, convents, synagogues and mosques. The city is also the home of the artist El Greco, and his paintings adorn many of the buildings and galleries.
The Cathedral is magnificent. Built in the 13th century, it’s one of the most important Christian landmarks in Spain. It’s kind of hidden away in the maze of little streets and other tall buildings, but once you find it and go inside it’s an enormous, soaring space with rich decorations and beautiful stained glass windows.
Also well worth a visit is the old Synagogue. Built in the 14th century, it’s been described somewhere as “the most important example of Sephardic (Jewish-Spanish) architecture in existence”. There’s a superb ceiling, as well as beautifully decorated walls and Moorish decorations, and a little museum of information about the Sephardic Jews.
The best way to see many of the splendours of Toledo is to take the little train that tours the old city and goes outside the city walls to take in the view across the valley. From the viewing point, you see the towering walls, the old palaces, the huge ancient monastery and the beautiful natural scenery of the hills and valleys all around.
Toledo is famous for arts and crafts, particularly gold and silver work – mainly knives and swords. There are shops full of them. I wasn’t tempted … and can’t imagine how anyone living outside of Spain could get items like this across borders anyway. Being so close to Madrid, Toledo is heavily tourist-infested, but I’m very glad I went – and would go again if the chance ever happens.
Another fascinating small city and yet another UNESCO World Heritage site… Seogiva is completely dominated by the enormous 2000-year old Roman aquaduct that towers above the main Plaza Azoguejo, and winds its way up and around the old part of town. It has 160 arches, and is built of huge granite blocks. It’s one of the largest and best-preserved aquaducts in the world. It originally carried water from a river quite a distance away …. and apparently is still able to carry water. It’s possible to climb a stairway near the aquaduct to get great views and photos from above.
Like Toledo, Segovia has an ancient castle, city walls and gates, an old Jewish quarter, churches and museums …. as well as attractive shops, cafes and restaurants. I wandered around just absorbing the atmosphere, stopping occasionally for a glass of wine or an ice-cream.
I’d also happened to arrive in Segovia just in time of the Ham Festival! The Spaniards love their ham and regard the whole process of manufacturing, serving and eating it very highly. Sliced wafer-thin, it really is a delicacy … but I never expected to see a whole festival dedicated to it. There were displays of different types of ham (presumably from different types of pigs) and competitions for butchers and waiters in the presentation of it. This all took place in the big square under the aquaduct, with an accompaniment of local bands. Best part was being able to sample small morsels of this tasty treat.
A SMALL PALACE OUTSIDE SEGOVIA(where? I forget … .)
I’d planned to take a short bus trip out to Avila, not far from Segovia …. but forgot it was Sunday! The weekend timetable was different, of course, so I missed the only morning bus. Checked other timetables and found I could get to and from another nearby town with time to visit the local palace. (I’m writing this much later than when I was there and have completely forgotten the name of the place …. can’t find it on Google either). Turned out to be a pleasant day spent wandering around the small town and through the palace parks and gardens. The shops were lovely too… it seemed quite an upper-crust sort of place….. and I ended up buying a dress and a red leather purse!
Back in Segovia, I felt almost ‘at home’ … but had to return to Madrid next day in time to get the flight home to Oz.
A diary should be written every day….this one is 2 weeks overdue and what an exceedingly busy fortnight it has been. Some things may be forgotten or inaccurate, but here goes. I’m now sitting at Chicago O’Hare airport waiting for next flight to Los Angeles. Left Flat Rock, Nth Carolina at 8am this morning for the 50 minute drive to Greenville, South Carolina to get the plane. A lot more flying ahead…LAX to Sydney, then Qantas home to Adelaide…….
I flew from Ottawa to Asheville on 1st October. It was so good to be picked up there by Camino friend, Nicole and her new husband Bill – and then to drive together up to Bob and Sue’s home in Flat Rock. It’s 4 years since Bob, Nicole and I walked across Spain. So fantastic to all be together again in North Carolina!!
It was a truly wonderful reunion weekend, beginning with Saturday night dinner at Bob and Sue’s – with flags for our 3 countries on the table! – and lots of laughs and reminiscing. Next morning, our very kind hosts took us for a sumptious Sunday brunch in the gracious old plantation-style Club house, overlooking the golf course, on the huge, wooded estate where they live.
Then it was off for a drive through the beautiful country roads, apple orchards and wineries around Hendersonville region. There was also time to enjoy photos and memories of our Camino sojourn, while enjoying Bob and Sue’s warm and wonderful hospitality in their lovely home.
Sadly, Nicole and Bill had to return to Colorado and work ….but Bob, Sue and I continued to enjoy being retired. Bob took me for a drive up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a fantastic road through the mountains which runs from Tennessee (?) to New York State, crossing the Appalachians at one stage. (Memory of details gets hazy as time goes by … but I have vivid recall of wave after wave of mountains, rugged and blue, in the distance.) Had lunch somewhere up high with magnificent views. Very enjoyable. We also dropped into Blue Star Camp where Bron (my daughter) had been a Camp Counsellor some years ago. Amazingly it was just down the road from where Bob and Sue live.
Also, serendipitously, the Western North Carolina Friends of the Camino group had an evening meeting and a coffee morning during these few days. A great opportunity to meet and talk with other pilgrims and share information about our Australian group gatherings. I became completely motivated to do another Camino after hearing a fantastic presentation about the Elbaniego and Vadinrense Ways, and the Camino San Salvador between Leon and Oviedo….both stunningly beautiful, but challenging mountain paths.
Up a hill behind Bob’s place, is a national historic site … the old home of Carl Sandburg. We made a visit and I learned much about this man, whom I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of before. Along with recognition as the “People’s Poet”, Sandburg was a lecturer, journalist, champion of labour right, creator of American folktales, collector of folksongs and Pulitzer prize winning biographer of Abraham Lincoln. A gracious old homestead and still a living farm.
Asheville is another particularly attractive small city in North Carolina – with some of the best bookshops ever. (My list of favourite bookshops in the world is growing ever-longer). There’s a kind of alternative vibe in Asheville … vegan restaurants, hipster cafes, a fascinating feminist museum (called A-SHE-ville, of course), live music in the streets and some interesting characters around the place. It’s also home to Biltmore Estate, supposedly the largest home in America on an 8000-acre estate – though I preferred the bookshops and cafes.
The last phase of my time in USA was the road trip with Pauline (friend from England.) Bob continued his ‘driving-on-the-right’ lessons with me while we drove to Charlotte to pick Pauline up. Very trusting, and hugely generous, is my friend Bob!!! He insisted I take his car for Pauline and me to roam the highways and by-ways of neighbouring States.
YEARS LATER …. written in 2021
Well that was the end of the diary entries for this fantastic around-the-world trip. France, Jersey, Canada and North Carolina all in the space of a month.
Pauline and I completed our driving tour through rural USA. We’d originally planned to travel south to Charleston and Savannah, on the coast of South Carolina, but a massive cyclone swept through on the very day we were to set out. People were being evacuated from their homes, roads were being closed etc – so it was definitely not an option for us. We headed west instead, to the yee-ha country-and-western music state of Tennessee. And I absolutely loved the hokey feel of it all. Pure, classic cowboy country!
There were rocking chairs on every verandah, little white Baptist churches in almost every field, huge displays of pumpkins for Halloween, beautiful patchwork quilt stores (and gun stores) in the towns we passed through … and everything else we’d ever seen in movies and magazines from southern USA.
Nashville was exactly as I’d imagined it …. bars all along the street with music pumping out, flashing neon signs and shops packed with studded boots and Stetsons. Also the fabulous Country and Western Museum dedicated to all the famous (and not-so-famous) musicians who’d made their mark in Nashville. And the equally wonderful Johnny Cash Museum. (I’m a Cash fan from way back!) We even managed to get to the Grand Ol’ Opry for an evening show. This is an absolute country music institution and still going strong more than 90 years since it started.
Other highlights of the road trip included Chattanooga … and yes, the original Choo-Choo is there. Also a drive through Cherokee country in the Blue Ridge mountains, a pit-stop in Sevierville, Dolly Parton’s home town, and a visit to one of the Civil War historic sites.
We were there only weeks before the US elections …. so Trump flags and banners were flying high everywhere. Tennessee and the Carolinas are strongly Republican states. We even strolled into one of the campaign offices somewhere, but were completely ignored, so must have been sending out Democrat vibes. ….
Wish I’d recorded everything at the time, but hope a few photos will re-create the Tennessee country atmosphere.
You have to feel a bit sorry for the bird that flew into the plane engine at Jersey….but I would have liked to wring its bloody neck. Stupid bird caused me two very long days of travel and changed plans. EasyJet had to bring another plane over to Jersey from England to pick everyone up, which caused a 3 hour delay…..which meant I missed my connecting flight to Toronto. Of course there wasn’t another flight until the next morning, so I had to find a bed for the night, cancel my Toronto accommodation, and – worst of all – cancel my booked trip to Niagara Falls. To add to the chaos at London Gatwick, many other flights had been disrupted due to a baggage handlers strike in France, so the airport hotels were almost full. I think I got the last available room at the Airport Hilton… ..a family room costing 194 British pounds…nearly $400!!! A test for my travel insurance….. ? Have to say it was very comfortable and I quite enjoyed the rest….but would much rather have been in Canada
The replacement flight was not direct – it took ALL day via stops in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia!!
With hindsight, it might have been better to miss Toronto altogether and just fly straight to Ottawa, but that would also have involved changing plans with other people, so I stuck to the schedule and had just one night in Toronto. Was a bit tricky finding how to get into the city from the airport (there were thousands of people waiting for buses and taxis) but I eventually found the shuttle train and made it into Union St, the huge central railway station. Had to resort to a taxi to find the hostel – which turned out to be lovely. Despite a very full day of planes, trains and automobiles, I decided to go back into the downtown area to have a quick look at Toronto after dark. It was a beautiful evening with a big full moon, so was worth another train trip just to see all the skyscraper apartments and the CN Tower lit up and sparkling. I walked down to the lake edge ….a massive expanse of water….then journeyed back ‘home’ by train again. Into bed by about 11pm – even later by English time which my body clock was probably still struggling with. Anyway I had a brief taste of Toronto and decided it looks a very interesting city.
Next morning, up early for a quick walk down the street to find breakfast. Struck gold! A sweet little Parisian creperie with the most delicious crepe I’ve ever had in my life. Better than anything I’ve had in France. The area I was in seemed to be a mix of French and English influence…and lots of students. I even walked past the Alliance Francaise on the way back to the BnB. Had to get back to Union Station (yet again) for the 10.45am train to Ottawa but I had the system sussed by now, so all went smoothly. But then a scheduled 4-hour train ride to Ottawa turned into 5 hours with signal problems, freight train up ahead etc. I feel as I’m jinxing every bit of transport I get on at present!
Saturday 17th September.
Made it!!! And Jacinthe was there to meet me. So nice to meet Normand’s sister at last .. have been Facebooking with her for a while, ever since she stayed a night or two at my place with Normand and Anne when they did their exchange last February. ( I was then in Thailand, and Jacinthe was on her way to teach in an orphanage in Myanmar) From the train station we did a loop through the city area before going back to her place., where I spent my first night in Ottawa. Jacinthe is bilingual and teaches French in an English school. Right from the outset I could see how totally bilingual this city is . Literally everything is in both languages.
The city itself is divided between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec by the big, wide Ottawa River. As the capital city of Canada, it’s dominated by the beautiful old Parliament buildings…the tower is an iconic city landmark. In some ways, it’s a lot like Canberra. …lots of government buildings, national galleries and museums, lovely parks and gardens – and also quite difficult to get one’s bearings outside the downtown area. East? West? I’m still not sure which is which.. I’m feeling a bit spaced out here….not quite sure which language to use, or which side of the road is which. Strangely I feel more at home in France where the roads aren’t so wide…and you know for sure it’s French… However, it is a lovely city with lots to see when you get downtown. My exchange home is a fair way out, and I’m not game to drive my huge 4WD truck on the busy roads, so I’m relying on the bus system – and actually feeling quite proud of myself for working it out. Had to work out the routes, the right stops, when to change buses, how to load money onto the card, how to get it switched to the Seniors rate etc. Also discovered that Seniors travel free on Wednesdays!
As well as being looked after by Jacinthe when I arrived , on Day 2 there was a phone call from Di’s niece, Danielle, who lives here. We met last week in Jersey when she was there for the deGruchy family get-together! She came out and picked me up, along with her 3 boys – Josh, Joel and Jacob- and we all spent a great afternoon walking around the main city sights., including Byward Market (where we had a Beavertail*, (an Ottawa speciality), then up to Parliament Hill, Rideau Canal locks, and Sparkes Street. Finished with an early dinner back in one of the many little eateries in the market area. Very hot day, so a cold beer and mussels went down well. And then Danielle drove me all the way home. (*Beavertails are pastry, maple syrup, sugar and cinnamon, shaped like a long oval)
Other outings by myself have been to the National Gallery and the Canadian Museum of History. Both stunning buildings which house fantastic collections and exhibits. With enough stamina and staying power, you could spend a whole day in each. My favourites in the art gallery were the Inuit art, plus 4 Stanley Spencers, plus the Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei’s huge tree sculpture which I saw last year in an old army bunker / turned gallery in Berlin. The History Museum (across the river in Quebec Province) tells the stories of Canada’s First Peoples – the Inuit and many diverse Indian groups. Now collectively called Aborigines, their history is very similar to the experience of Australia’s indigenous people….invasion by white settlers, displacement from their lands, destruction of their traditional culture, disempowerment, removal of children etc. Today there’s been some recognition of land rights and a renewed pride in the culture and heritage of these people, but still a long process of healing ahead.
The museum has enormous educational value in showing the traditional cultures…fishing, whaling, farming, rituals, handcrafts, spirituality…everything. And there’s an amazing collection of totem poles in the main hall…massive logs, intricately carved with tribal symbols. Also in the museum was a special exhibition on Napoleon in Paris. I learned more about this esteemed Emporer than I’d ever known before…and I’m impressed. I took the little water taxi across to the museum…on a beautiful sunny day, the river and landmark buildings on either side looked spectacular. Could have walked across the bridge but it was hot…
Another outing, by a series of buses, was to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stables. This is where the famous ‘Musical Ride ‘ Mounties and their horses live when they’re not on tour . They were all there the day I went, but sadly not practicing or riding around. Still, the tour of the stables and museum was interesting – and free. I tagged along with a bus group so got all the commentary and background stories.
Tried to get onto a tour of the Parliament buildings but it seems that these tickets are gobbled up early every morning..so will have to set out at dawn one day to have any chance. Tickets can’t be booked. It’s first come, first served.
Have to mention the squirrels before I wind this journal entry up. These little black animals with big bushy tales are everywhere…they skip across roads, through parks and into people’s gardens. Cute as pie! Not popular with the locals however.
Still in Ottawa 23rd September:
Can’t believe how lucky I’ve been with the weather …sunny every day, quite hot at times …but Fall is almost here, so the evenings are getting cooler. There’s quite an atmosphere here in Ottawa about the coming of Fall, with the anticipation of glorious colours in the leaves, and the prospect of crisp days and nights.. And Halloween isn’t far off either. The shops are decorated with autumn colours and pumpkins and there’s a tinge in the air for this popular season. But not quite for me … it looks as if the extended hot summer has confused the trees, so there are very few signs of red, orange or yellow leaves about yet. Maybe there’ll be more in Quebec where I’m going soon.
I finally got to see inside the Parliament building yesterday. To get tickets, it’s necessary to be there when the doors to the ticket office open at 9am. I made it on the dot, but there was already quite a long queue snaking around the little square. However, my turn came and I scored a ticket for the 12.20 tour. They’re all timed, and you have to take what you’re offered….the earlier tours in English were already full. With 3 hours to fill, I treated myself to coffee and almond croissant, then another walk around the Parliament Hill area.
At midday, the carillon bells in the tower pealed across the lawns so it made the last bit of waiting very enjoyable. Then came the security search before entering the building ….bags searched twice, and x-rayed, with coats, scarfs and belts off, pockets emptied etc. It took ages, but our gaggle of approximately 30 tourists were finally given the all-clear and we proceeded through the glorious stone halls, sculpted arches and magnificent library of the building. It was very like an English university college…older and more stately than Parliament House in Canberra , but with a similar dignity and sense of tradition. Paintings of all former PMs line the corridors, just as they do in Canberra. The Canadian system of government is based on the Westminster system, so is very similar to ours, with separate chambers for the Senate and the House. The lower house was actually in session at the time, so the group couldn’t go in, but interested individuals could if they wanted to go through another security screening, leave bags with security guards and tiptoe into the public gallery. Yes…..Of course I did. Unfortunately Canada’s spunky PM Trudeau wasn’t there at the time, but there was an extremely interesting debate going on about the benefits of increasing immigration in Canada’s eastern provinces, with a strong emphasis on the advantages of taking in more Syrian refugees. It only our Australian MPs could have been there to hear the logic – the social and economic benefits outlined – and the sheer humanity of the various speakers. People from both sides of the House spoke, all generally in favour. Some spoke French, and there were small headsets attached to every seat in the gallery so you could hear the translation. As a confessed politics junkie, I found it all quite fascinating.
After listening to democracy at work, I retraced my steps through the building to the lifts to go up to the viewing platform near the top of the tower. The Peace Tower looks like Big Ben in London, and is over 100 meters high, so you get amazing views all over the city. The lift up is interesting too …it’s on a slight incline, not straight up and down. Can’t remember why. Back on the lower level, you can go into the beautiful little memorial chapel which honours Canadians who fought and died in all wars. Parliament may not appeal to everyone, but I reckon it’s a ‘must’ for all visitors to Canada (just as Parliament House in Canberra is. )
24th September: Went for a walk in the woods near to where I’m living…. very pretty and quite popular. One bit of woodland leads to another, then another….and that’s when I became hopelessly lost! After an hour or so of pleasant wandering, I did not have a clue which direction I was heading in, and the various people I asked didn’t seem to know where Orleans Boulevard was. I was given several different suggestions – some as I discovered later which were totally 180 degrees the wrong way. Shades of India came back to me …it was if some answer – any answer – had to be given to keep the Memsahib happy.
Eventually out on another main road, two young women spent ages on their phones working out the best route for me to walk home….and about 3 kilometers later I arrived back at my front door. I’ve decided I’m losing it!
Sunday 25th: Another on the list of things to do in Ottawa is to walk or cycle along the man-made Rideau Canal ….or skate along it in winter when it turns into the longest skating rink in the world. The Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site, originally built to transport troops and goods between Montreal and Kingston. It’s now a purely recreational trail for walkers, joggers, paddlers or skaters.. I walked a couple of km today from downtown to The Glebe, an attractive, hip kind of near city residential area…buzzing with people on a sunny Sunday. Everything looks good in the sunshine, and the old houses, coffee places, bars and market didn’t disappoint.
Danielle had phoned during the morning so I arranged to catch the bus out to Stittsville where she lives during the afternoon. It’s way out on the opposite side of the city, but with only one minor glitch (getting off at the wrong stop), I found my way there eventually. Ended up staying for dinner – and then staying the night! They’re such a lovely family and made me extremely welcome. As we’d planned to go to Gatineau Park the next day, it seemed crazy to go all the way back to Orleans., as any quick look at a map of Ottawa would confirm. A toothbrush was found and the guest bed made up, and we settled down for another glass of wine…..
Got to Gatineau. .. with grateful thanks to Danielle. Impossible without a car…. It’s not far out of Ottawa city, but no public transport. The park is enormous, a wilderness of magnificent forests, lakes, hiking trails and lookouts. Fall is the crowning season here, and it should have been ablaze with color – and would have looked magnificent – but this year at the end of September it’s still mainly green with just the occasional tree valiantly showing off some brilliant red or yellow foliage. A beautiful place, nonetheless. We did an hour walk around Pink Lake, then drove to a lookout overlooking the whole Ottawa valley. Along the way a raccoon ambled across the road! He looked like a small fat wombat with a bushy, stripey tail. I also saw a chipmunk playing in the leaves, and a beaver dam on one of the small lakes….no beavers though….they’re very elusive little critters.
So now it’s Tuesday 27th and I’m finishing this off on the train to Quebec. I’ll be away 2 nights, before heading back to Ottawa for one final day ….and then the next part of this journey starts. USA awaits!
QUEBEC 27-29th September
This will be short…I’m running out of steam a bit. However the next phase of this journey is going to be full-on, so must make a few notes now about Quebec.
Took the train on Tuesday morning, arrived at 4pm. …approx a 5 hour trip. Trains here are very comfortable and well-equipped, some with wifi. First thing that hit on arrival was the cold! Much crisper than Ottawa, but I’d come prepared. Took a taxi to my little hotel in the heart of the Old City, then set out to explore.
No doubt about it, Quebec is as awesomely pretty as everyone says, with buildings that look like story book castles, quaint old houses and shops, horses and carriages clip-clopping around, and a stunning position overlooking the mighty St Lawrence river. It’s almost too pretty…which is why it’s such a draw card for tourists from everywhere. The Old City was swarming with them…cameras clicking everywhere…..which kind of took some of the magic away. I found myself getting quite grumpy with the big buses and the countless guided walking tour groups. Some groups (nationalities to remain nameless) can’t seem to actually LOOK at anything unless it’s through the lens of a camera. I tried hard, but have to say I’m glad I hadn’t planned to stay more than 2 nights.
Despite hills and lots of stairs, Quebec is an easy city to walk around. Towering over everything is the magnificent Château Frontenac hotel…said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. (Somehow I didn’t seem to take one …) With its turrets and windows and sheer height, it is quite lovely, and probably mega-luxurious inside. It sits on Dufferin Terrace, a wide terrace overlooking the lower part of Old Quebec and the Harbour. Cold and windy, but breathtakingly beautiful. Quebec is built on two main levels…upper and lower towns. There’s a funicular railway down the cliff, but it’s not too far to walk down the stairway. The lower part is filled with very tempting shops, all beautifully decorated with flowers and window displays…but, as everywhere, just over-run with tourists. Can’t imagine what it must be like in summer.
My hotel was in the upper part of the old city, just along the street (and below the price-range) from Château Frontenac. Lots of attractive shops and restaurants in this part too…also the old city fortifications, walls and arches. Apparently Quebec is the only city on the Nth American continent, apart from Mexico, to have retained its entire city walls….which is one of the reasons it has UNESCO world heritage listing..
What I really liked were the houses with their pretty doors and windows, many dating back to the earliest days of the original French colony. Quebec has totally retained its French language and culture, even though it was taken over by the British back in the 1700s. Its Parliament is based on the British system, but only French is spoken in parliamentary sittings. The strategic position of the city overlooking the mouth of the St Lawrence river resulted in many battles between the French and the English. The Quebecois are very proud of their history, which is reflected in many of the public buildings. I managed to do a tour of the sumptuous Parliament building, designed and decorated in the French style …like Versailles.
There’s not much more to say about Quebec. Highly recommended if you want to take 5 million photos.
The train trip back to Ottawa was particularly pleasant. A lovely young (mid- 40s? ) lawyer sat next to me after Montreal. We chatted for the next 2 hours. Highly intelligent, and typical (I think) of the progressive Canadian people who are welcoming Syrian refugees into their country and their homes. He also told me a lot about the judicial system, professional development available to judges , and the political and social issues which are current in Canada. A keen traveler and long distance walker …we had lots to talk about! Just another of those serendipitous meetings that happen when you travel solo, we agreed.
Last day in Ottawa …packing, tidying up. Have to be at the airport by 4.30am for the flight to the US tomorrow.
I travelled by ferry across the Channel from St Malo – comfortable trip, and not very far.Great to see Di waiting when I emerged from Immigration.
September 14 2016: IMPRESSIONS OF JERSEY
It’s my last full day here in Jersey, staying with my friend from home, Diana, her sister Rosemary, twin brother Peter and his wife, another Rosemary. Di and all her siblings were born and grew up here and they have a huge extended family still living on the island – as well as others scattered around the world. It’s been a privilege to be a kind of surrogate member of the de Gruchy clan for a few days and to experience Jersey like a local. The weather’s been kind to us too .. mostly sunny and hot, with a few showers thrown in for good measure. Also a spectacular thunder and lightning display one night.
My impressions: Beaches, bays, boats, huge tides, rocky coastline, tiny winding roads and lanes, farms, churches, castles, and lots more houses than I thought possible on an island only 9 miles by 5 miles in size (approx 14 km X 7 km). Also history, history, history…. everywhere The regular population is 18,000 but it doubles in the summer months. It’s quite densely built up around the main town of St Helier, but you only have to go a few miles out on the narrow, leafy lanes to find green fields, woodlands and beautiful places to walk or cycle. Jersey is a very popular tourist destination for both the Brits and the French….it actually has a very French ‘feel’, even though it’s always been owned by Britain (apart from the Germans Occupation during WW2. .. more of that later..). France is only an hour away by boat and is clearly visible from many points on the south side of the island. All the streets, roads and little lanes have French names too
We’re staying in a lovely house overlooking a sweeping bay, close to Gorey Castle, one of the many fortifications dotted around the island, this one dating from about 1100, I think. My bedroom’s in the attic so I get a fabulous view. Many houses have front doors smack bang onto the busy roadway, ours included. Driving around here would be a nightmare if you had to do it every day….cars often have to back up on the narrow lanes to let others pass. Fortunately, Peter (Di’s twin brother) has been chauffering us around everywhere in the little hire car.
So, what have I seen?….
First visit was to a tapestry exhibition which tells the story of the war years and the liberation of Jersey from Nazi occupation. 1939-1945. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation, all the local parishes of Jersey stitched the most amazing tapestry pictures depicting all aspects of life during the war. The 12 panels were designed by an artist and everyone was trained in how to do the work. The end result is a fantastic display, accompanied by computer technology which provides an interactive source of additional information. An excellent documentary film shows real footage of the history, and interviews with people who lived through the Occupation. It explains clearly the process that Jersey went through over the past 60 years in coming to terms with their wartime experiences and why it’s taken until fairly recently for the people to take pride in celebrating and sharing this period of the island’s history. Jersey is now even “twinned” with a sister-city in Germany as part of the spirit of reconciliation.
A very much older historical monument is Elizabeth Castle which dominates the skyline at the entrance to the main harbour. Named by Sir Walter Raleigh after Elizabeth 1, the Castle has been a stronghold against potential invaders for the past 400 years. It sits high on a massive granite rock with turrets and cannons pointing out to sea. The display inside tells the story of numerous battles (mainly against the French) and of the changes of rule over the centuries. Bonnie Prince Charlie sheltered here at one time and the Castle also played a part during the Civil War (Oliver Cromwell etc). I never can remember all the details despite devouring them while I’m there….oh well, live in the moment. Conditions for the soldiers who lived in the barracks were horrendous…low pay, extreme discomfort, disease, poor food … though apparently a soldier’s lot was still better than many of his fellow-countrymen who lived in very bleak conditions on little farms or crowded towns. To get to Elizabeth Castle, you ride in an old army ‘duck’, an amphibious vehicle that rocks and rattles over the seabed when the tide is out, or floats across when the tide’s in.
Yet another period of history comes alive at Hamptonne Country Life museum. Jersey’s traditional rural life is on display at this lovely old farmhouse which dates back to the 15th century. I visited Hamptonne with Peter and Rosemary, while Di and her sister went out in the boat with other family members to look for dolphins. They found several big pods and were well entertained with lots of leaping, twisting and playing around. Sounded great, but I really enjoyed the rolling countryside, cows, pigs and thatched timber farmhouse, as well as the superb collection of stitched samplers on the wall of one of the cottages. Embroidered by girls as young as 6, and dating back to at least the1700s, they were truly works of art.
Yesterday (Tuesday 13th) we visited two sites that possibly even surpassed all of the above in terms of historical interest. Firstly, La Houghe Bie (don’t ask me what it means)…. a Neolithic burial site – and much, much more. It’s described as one of Europe’s finest passage graves dating way back to prehistoric times. You can scramble into the burial chamber, bent double, and see where ancient pagan rituals were carried out. Like other great prehistoric sites around the world, this one was built so that the sun’s rays at sunrise lit the inner chamber during the summer and winter equinox. It’s constructed with massive stones and upright pillars – like Stonehenge. But how they ever manoeuvred them into place is mind-boggling. To make this site even more amazing and spiritual, there’s also a little Christian chapel built on top of the burial mound, dating back to the 1500’s. And there’s a fantastic archaeological and geological museum on site which tells the story of Jersey’s formation and human civilisation from millions of years ago. Of most interest is the display of the huge hoard of Iron Age coins and gold jewellery discovered in a nearby potato field in 2012. Buried by someone around the time of Julius Caesar, 55BC, they lay undisturbed for over 2000 years. Archaeologists are working on them inside the museum ….and so far they’ve excavated over 55,000 individual coins and other items from the melded rocky hoard which weighed over a tonne. A truly fascinating display.
And if that wasn’t enough for one day, another superb, but harrowing, site awaited. We’d been to some of the old Germany army bunkers on one of the headlands earlier in the week, but today we visited the War Tunnels which have been opened up with displays telling the whole story of the Occupation years. These tunnels and all the bunkers were built by slave laborers brought from Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries by the German army when they took over the Channel Islands. They worked in terrible conditions to tunnel these massive great underground passage-ways….miles and miles of them. During the war the tunnels were used for everything from ammunition stores, prisons and an underground hospital. Now there are excellent, chilling displays of what life was like for both the Germans and the Jersey Islanders for 5 years while the war raged around them in Britain and Europe. There were food shortages, lack of medical supplies, no radios allowed and very severe orders imposed on the locals by the Germans. A few people escaped, 21 died, and the rest survived until liberated by the Allies in 1945….almost a year after the Normandy landings and the end of the war in Britain. Di and her brother Peter were very young children during this whole period, so they don’t have strong memories, but of course they’ve heard all the family stories and lived through all the hardships.
This visit to Jersey certainly brought the impact of war home to me more strongly than any Anzac Day commemorations, and has strengthened my commitment to peace and human rights.
Phew….writing all this has made it feel as if we had an extremely busy time on this small island. But while we did do a lot, we also had plenty of time for leisurely coffees, walks and dinner one night with the extended de Gruchy family. We covered a lot of miles on the winding little roads and enjoyed the scenic beauty as well as the cultural history. I doubt if I’ll get back here, but am very glad I’ve been.
The world is a magnificent place and it’s now possible to go right around it in much less than 80 days … though how good would it have been to have had many more on this trip in 2016. Everywhere was equally wonderful, meeting up with old friends along the way, and making lots of new ones.
CHARTRES France: 3 September 2016
It’s now my second day in France, and about 72 hours since I left Adelaide. I’m in a shabby-chic kind of AirBnB apartment in Chartres, waiting for Nelson (English friend from the Pyrenees) to arrive, after spending the earlier part of the day exploring this charming old city by myself . Still haven’t quite got my bearings…but who cares? Just wandering through a maze of medieval lanes and streets, and around the famous 12th century cathedral has been a joy.
Yesterday ( Sept 2) was spent almost entirely in just getting here. After a seemingly endless flight from Singapore, arrival in Paris should have been a relief .. but it wasn’t. After being herded through the cattle run of Immigration Control I found myself in an unrecognisable terminal so had to walk miles , then take the crowded shuttle train to Terminal 2 to get to the Airport railway station. Having then found a ticket machine to retrieve my booked-online ticket to Chartres, I discovered there was no way I was going to have time to change trains in the middle of the city. My mistake, perhaps, for not checking the details very carefully when I booked. But one assumes that a reputable online booking system like Capitaine Train would not issue two legs of the journey with the first train arriving at Gare du Nord, and the outward train departing from Gare Montparnasse on the other side of the city, with only 20 minutes changeover time. Quite impossible. So, I had to scrap the first ticket and then make my way to Gare Montparnasse via the ordinary suburban train, plus Metro, which involved more tunnels, stairs to lug bags up and down, and considerable fatigue and frustration …not to mention wasting 47 Euro. Capitaine Train will be hearing from me in due course.
On eventual arrival in Chartres, the next hurdle was finding the BnB I’d booked there . Should have been easy to follow the directions and walk about 800 meters. But I was hot and tired. Eventually found it with the help of a lovely female taxi driver who drove me the last block – free of charge. By this stage I was really looking forward to a shower and a cup of tea …but then found I couldn’t get in. I knew that Sonia, the owner, was away but there was no key in the key safe. Fortunately rescue seemed at hand when a friend of Sonia’s just happened to arrive to check for mail. She didn’t have a spare key but tried texting Sonia (who was in Vietnam !) then phoning her parents, then checking with neighbours and eventually even offering me the couch at her place if we couldn’t get in. In the course of all these attempts to Find the Key, she discovered that the car of the previous occupants was still in the back garden, so we assumed they had to be still around town somewhere. Best option seemed to be Sit and Wait….and wait, and wait….. Sure enough, more than an hour later a young couple arrived back from their walk. With the key!! They’d had no idea I was booked in to stay and were hugely apologetic. So all was well at last and one very hot, thirsty, tired traveller found her home for the next 3 nights – about 48 hours after leaving Adelaide.
Skipping back to the beginning, the next day was lovely. I found my way to the cathedral, the oldest Gothic cathedral in Europe, built in the 12th-13th centuries, rebuilt after fires and listed as a World Heritage site. The stained glass windows are wonderful. And Chartres is still renowned as a centre for glass work. I resisted the possibility of climbing 300 steps to the top of one of the towers, and opted instead for the very touristy activity of taking the little train around the old part of the city. (Well, it was hot and I was still a bit jet-lagged..) Anyway it was worth 6.50 euro. Got to see lots of ancient houses, churches, bridges and quirky corners of the historic quarter without having to climb hills and cobbled stairways, and I learnt more in the process. I’m quite captivated by the charm of this city and the friendliness of the people. My attempts at speaking French have been met kindly and I was able to do a bit of market-shopping in preparation for Nelson’s arrival. Definitely walked more than 10,000 steps exploring the town, so wandered ‘home’ to have a snooze during the afternoon.
Nelson rocked up on his bike around 6pm, having traveled by train from England during the day. Was great to catch up and unwind over a simple dinner at home with my market purchases, before we set out to walk to the cathedral again after dark to see the amazing illuminations of many of the old buildings. The colours and images displayed were phenomenal and everyone watching from nearby bars, restaurants, gardens and footpaths was quite awe-struck. This display has been happening every night throughout the summer and must be a huge tourist draw card for Chartres. It was a warm, balmy evening last night so we thoroughly enjoyed strolling around and coming across more beautiful lighting effects and the very pleasant atmosphere of a late Saturday night in this lovely city.
September 4: A lazy start today. Nelson set off on the bike to locate the essential baguette and croissants for a French Sunday morning breakfast and then we continued to catch up on news of activities since we’d last seen each other at Jocelyne’s place in the Pyrennees.
We ambled off mid-morning to the old centre of town again. Came across a huge Mass in progress in the cathedral -something to do with Mother Theresa’s canonisation. We were surprised for a brief moment at seeing security officials checking bags at the door until the penny dropped and we realized that this is probably now happening all over France wherever there’s a large crowd of people. We were able to go inside and move quietly around the side chapels with a backdrop of chanting, prayers and organ music. Then walked some more down to the river
Had dinner out in a quaint typical little French restaurant…old beams, gingham tablecloths and great food! Really enjoyed having company for the weekend.
It was au revoir to Nelson this morning. He’s heading back to his canal boat somewhere in the beautiful French countryside. I took the train to St Malo for the next phase of this Round the World trip….
September 6: Elyane’s home @ Plouer sur Rance, Britanny
What else could I ask for? Elyane is extremely kind and generous, she’s showing me the very best of Britanny, and I’m getting to practise a bit of French every day. Her attractive home is tucked amongst trees and a pretty garden, with cows in a small field next door. Raspberries are growing around the side and herbs by the back door. Quite perfect, and would be even better if only I could speak French properly. (Elyane is a friend of Ann and Normand, my French Canadian home exchangees, whose place I’ll be heading to in Ottawa later this month. Anne and Normand also met Elyane through a home swap … )
France is such a beautiful country,. Everything I’ve seen in this region is up there with the best….the coast line and bays around St Malo and Dinard, the wide river Rance, the gracious old stone farm houses, small villages and historic towns such as Dinan, where we spent several hours today. But it’s so, so HOT, like the middle of summer, with everyone in their lightest summer clothes. In contrast, my bags are packed with jumpers, jeans and jackets ready for Canada and the US. I didn’t expect this glorious weather here in Brittany in September. Had to buy a sleeveless top today.
Step back to yesterday (Monday 5 September)
The train trip from Chartres to St Malo was easy, with changes at Le Mans and Rennes. Elyane met me at the station at St Malo and we drove straight into town. It’s a hugely popular tourist place to visit, so on a bright, hot sunny day it was chock-a-block. The entire old town is surrounded by high stone walls for protection from the sea and marauding armies., but despite the massive fortifications , the town suffered severe destruction at the end of WW2. It was occupied by the Germans for much of the last part of the war and life must have been very difficult for the French inhabitants. (A fantastic book set in this time is “All the Light we cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Highly recommended!) St Malo’s been completely restored since the war and today it was all sunshine and happiness. After walking around the ramparts – with great views of the sea, the old port, hundreds of boats and the high stone houses inside the walls – we enjoyed some traditional gallettes (crepes) and Breton cider.
Then it was a scenic drive to Elyane’s home and settling in for the next few days.
Skip forward again to September 6:
As mentioned above, this was the day we visited Dinan, a medieval town with streets and houses dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Unbelievably gorgeous! One ‘main’ cobbled street climbs steeply from the pretty little riverside port up to the main town square and commercial area at the top. It was good to take a breather several times on the way up just to admire the old timber-beamed cottages, bending and twisting at all angles, and all the pretty flower boxes in their windows. Some are now little art shops or studios, but many still seem to be private homes There’s a photo opportunity everywhere you look. At the top of the street are the restaurants and postcard shops, but it’s all still very pretty and colourful. Mussels were being advertised as the ‘plat du jour’ in many of the little bars and cafes, so we enjoyed a huge pot full each. Cooked in cream and white wine, sprinkled with shallots and parsley…yum! ! Dinan is a a treasure …I loved it.
September 7: Mont St Michel, Normandy The jewel in the crown in northern France is Mont St-Michel, the island monastery and abbey – actually just out of Britanny, into Normandy. It’s like a huge rock built on vast tidal sands and river flats, but when the tide comes in it’s like a floating castle cut off from the world. It’s a holy place that’s been a place of retreat and pilgrimage since the 8th century. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the monastery is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The car park on the mainland can accommodate 3000 cars! You have to park in the official (and expensive ) car park, then go across to the island on a free shuttle bus. There’s now a kilometre-long causeway built to take buses and pedestrians. Some enthusiasts make the return trip across the sand with a guide, but it’s apparently very treacherous with quicksand in places. It looked like a very long, hot walk, so we opted for the shuttle both ways. Exploring Mont Saint-Michel requires lots of walking and stair-climbing, but it is worth it Unfortunately the abbey high up on the mount had closed by the time we got there, but after returning to the car and driving to a nearby village for dinner, we returned to a vantage point to see this beautiful place by night. Even from a distance it looks magical all lit up.
A day in Rennes: September 8
Rennes is an old city, approximately 50 km from Elyane’s home. Today she’d organized for us to meet an official city guide for a walking tour of the most historical parts. We also met Elyane’s brother who came along on the walk. It was fascinating to see the very oldest medieval houses and follow a route through the centuries, with a constant stream of facts and stories….almost entirely in French. Although the guide could speak English, she obviously found it much easier to communicate with Elyane and Christien in their own language, and only gave the occasional brief nod to me in translation. Fortunately the old houses and walls were beautiful to look at, but I had a splitting headache after 2 solid hours of walking in the sun and straining to understand anything. If I ever want to know anything about the history of Rennes from the 13th century I’ll look it up on Google. It won’t be detailed in this here journal.
After the walk, we enjoyed lunch on the terrace of a busy restaurant, along with many locals enjoying their lunch break. A hearty meal in the middle of the day seems to be the custom here – as well as more food and wine in the evening , of course.
To fill in time before meeting Anne and Normand (above mentioned home exchangees) at the station, we strolled through part of the very extensive botanic gardens in Rennes. Was good to see so many people enjoying the lawns, flowers and shady places. We’d come across a big rally and demonstration in the city earlier in the day and many students were still gathered together in the gardens, replete with flags and banners. But there were no longer dozens of police and military on the sidelines. Security is definitely big-time here.
Anne and Normand arrived at 4.25 by train from Switzerland. So good to see them both again and to have the pleasure of their company at Elyane’s for the next 24 hours. Strange to think I’ll be in their house in Ottawa in about a week’s time. (They stayed in mine in November last year while I was in France….we met briefly and they teed up my stay with Elyane, one of their previous home swappers! This home exchange network is fantastic…) Back home, we shared a superb feast of oysters and salad in the garden, followed by cheese, wine, raspberries and chocolate. Once again, much of the conversation was in French, but I could follow bit more of it. I guess the ear tunes in a bit over several days. Still extremely difficult for me to join in in any intelligent way, but one or other of these lovely people would often break into English for the poor Australian in their midst. I feel I need about 6 months immersed in the language to become even mildly fluent. Will just have to keep coming here, I guess…
September 9: Lazy day at home with a BBQ lunch and more chat. Lots of tips from Anne and Normand about Ottawa too. But eventually the time came for me to say Au revoir to France and take the ferry from St Malo across to Jersey . Fond farewells at the ferry terminal, and I was off to a world of English again in the Channel Islands.
2020??? Why would anyone try to travel this year? Well … I’d actually set out just before the dreaded Covid virus announced its arrival in the world. My planned 6-week home exchange in Lincolnshire quickly turned into 2 weeks – barely long enough to get feet on the ground. And then it was a frenzied dash to get on to almost the last flight out of Heathrow – and home to2 weeks in strict quarantine. Who knows when I’ll ever get back???
CRANWELL 1. 13 March 2020
Tra la, tra la. .. this is the life I was meant to live. Foot-loose and fancy-free back in my beloved England. I’m now happily settled in the rural village of Cranwell in Lincolnshire, with a very fine Peugeot at my disposal.
Luckily I escaped from Oz before the PM dictated that all non-essential overseas travel should be cancelled. I flew Singapore Airlines and apart from coming down with a head cold on the second leg of the journey (Singapore to London) I’m pretty sure I’ve come through unscathed and untouched by the dreaded C-virus. The cold lasted a bit over 24 hours with plenty of sneezing that might have worried some of my fellow-passengers … but as I was perfectly well before I boarded the plane and have now slept off all symptoms, I’m 100% positive it was nothing more than a plain old-fashioned cold.
Changi airport was very much quieter than usual – and more peaceful and beautiful with fewer people around. Most of those who were there were wearing face masks. In fact it was easy to spot the Australians and the Brits as we seemed to be the only ones prepared to go full-face frontal. Even on the plane, the lovely Singapore flight attendants were all masked. This, combined with my stuffed up head, made it quite difficult to understand anything they said … eg “ Oools o tata? “ presumably meant “would you like noodles or frittata for breakfast?”. And “offi-o-t? “ was questioning which drink I’d prefer. Not easy…. I also might add here that I don’t think Premium Economy is worth all the extra money. The seats might be a tad larger, and leg room a bit more spacious, but it was still difficult to stretch out and awkward for the person next to me to climb out and over. If one has to endure 14 hours of discomfort, one might as well save $1000 and just settle for cattle class as always.
Time passed quite pleasantly during the long stopover in Singapore. I’d booked one of the free City Sights bus tours to while away a couple of hours – and enjoyed it immensely. Met a very nice couple from Cairns and explored the stunning Gardens by the Bay with them. Only had ½ hour there, but it was right on dusk so we got to see the magnificent living tree sculptures lighting up. Back on the bus a young Indonesian woman sat next to me and took selfies of both of us, so she could impress her Facebook friends! She was determined to “friend” me too, so we spent the rest of the bus trip swapping phones, searching, posting and ‘liking’ .. total waste of time but good for international relations……
After landing in London, getting to Cranwell involved taking the tube from Heathrow to Kings Cross, then another long distance train to Grantham, followed by a 25-minute taxi ride to my latest home exchange address. All relatively easy, but very tiring on top of the long flight and Singapore stopover – plus the head cold. On arrival, all I wanted was a hot shower and BED, which should have been easy. BUT after washing body and soul, I was completely unable to turn the shower thing OFF!! Desperation levels soared but I simply could not stop the flow. Naked, getting cold, and swearing loudly I had to give up and watch gallons of H2O flow down the drain. My only option then was to phone Jean & Gordon’s daughter and ask for help… definitely not the greatest way to introduce myself.
Anyway, long story short, Laura contacted her husband, her brother in law and a neighbour down the road – and over the course of the next two hours all 3 blokes knocked on my door. Fortunately the first to arrive was Jim, the heavily tattooed and studded brother-in-law (and a thoroughly lovely young man). He managed eventually to turn the knob using his massive muscle power- but not before enough water to sustain an outback Aussie town had been wasted. Later, Sam (the husband) also had a look and had to agree that the whole fitting was rooted. Sooo. .. showers from now on have to be taken in the second bathroom, standing in the bath.
After all this adventure on Day 1, I fell into bed at 7pm and slept like a log. Woke up 12 hours later, had a cup of tea, and climbed back under the covers. Woke again at 4pm!! By this time I’d still seen nothing of Lincolnshire except the inside of the house and the view over wide green fields full of sheep beyond the back garden.
It’s now Day 3 (Friday 13th) and I’m feeling much more alive. Took the Peugeot out for a test spin around the block and, having decided I could cope, then drove on to Sleaford, the nearest market town about 3 miles away. It seems to be a fairly typical English town with a blend of old and new buildings, all the usual High St shops, a fine-looking church and a plethora of charity op-shops, Stumbled upon the library too, so signed up and borrowed a few books.
Tomorrow I’m going to venture to Lincoln … 14 miles north.
CRANWELL 2. SATURDAY 14 MARCH
Life in Lincolnshire continues happily. It’s still early days but horizons are broadening. I’ve now covered all 14 miles of the A15 from Sleaford to Lincoln, plus at least 10,000 steps around the city today. Monsieur Peugeot and I are becoming better acquainted. Together we managed to drive right into the city centre, park for a few hours, and then find our way home again. I’d been told that Lincoln is an easy city to drive around – and so I found it – though I wasn’t quite brave enough today to tackle the winding hilly roads up to the Cathedral Quarter.
Lincoln Cathedral is massive and dominates the city on top of a very steep hill, opposite Lincoln Castle. Kings and bishops through the centuries must have basked in their power up there near heaven. I’m very much looking forward to touring both the Cathedral and the Castle in the near future and learning the history of these inspiring edifices. Today I just walked (and climbed) and soaked up the atmosphere. The long cobble-stoned walkway from the commercial part of the city up to the Cathedral Quarter is called .. guess what? …. Steep Hill . Apparently once voted as “the best street in Britain”, Steep Hill really is delightful. As well as challenging! Tiny shops, tea rooms and galleries line both sides of the narrow street in a mix of ancient buildings. Picture postcard Britain, for sure.
It was hard to choose which quaint cafe to visit for a coffee, but a Bookshop always works its magic on me, and this one was in an old stone cellar … with great coffee, cake and other customers, especially the charming older woman whose company I enjoyed while we chatted about galleries, museums, travels and more. Recently widowed, she and her husband used to live in one of the Cathedral houses .. maybe he was the Dean or something? This is so much part of the pleasure of traveling solo – meeting lovely people and sharing a few moments of life with them.
SUNDAY 15 MARCH
I am so tired of hearing corona virus news. Have just learned that I will have to self- isolate for 14 days when I return from overseas. At least that’s the story today. Who knows what changes will occur tomorrow or next week? I’m still very well, and there are thousands of people all over Britain enjoying life in the streets and shops here. The level of panic and hysteria that Australia seems to be experiencing is not evident here. Not to me, anyway. There’s still plenty of food and toilet paper in the supermarkets and people seem to still be taking trains, going to work etc. At this stage I still want to stay. I don’t think I’ve got much choice actually, so for now I’m going to keep on enjoying my English life. (See update below .. 2 days later!)
Today(Sunday) I decided to learn a bit more about Cranwell where I’m living. Cranwell is home to the RAF officer training college and has a rich aviation history. Lincolnshire has quite a number of airfields dotted around this area. All were very active during both World Wars and small planes still fly regularly in these skies as future air force pilots receive their training. The Red Arrows formation flyers also train and operate from here.
So this afternoon I took myself to the Cranwell Aviation Heritage Museum … not a huge establishment, but packed full of photos, memorabilia, models, posters and simulators telling the story of flight in the UK since the beginning of the 20th century. The RAF College was built in 1916 as a Royal Naval air base but expanded rapidly and has played a major role ever since in equipping Britain to defend the country from the air. Planes have ranged from the Bleriot 2c (one of the very earliest flying machines), through a variety of others including the Sopwith Snipe, the Hawker Hart, the Spitfire, the Hunting Jet Provost and the Beechcraft King Air which is used today for multi-engine training.
In coming days I plan to visit more of the RAF bases and whatever parts of the College are open to the public. Hope to see the Red Arrows overhead some time too.
Then for a complete change of scene, and a step back into a different sort of history, I drove on to the nearby village of Heckington to see the oldest 8-sail windmill still operating in Europe (maybe in the world?). It was built in 1830 as a five-sail mill, but after being damaged in a gale in 1890 was rebuilt with 8 metal ‘sails’. It’s now maintained and operated by enthusiastic volunteers, so is still grinding wheat into flour which is sold in the windmill shop or used in the bakery to make cakes which are served in the adjoining tearoom, It’s very high and quite impressive.
TUESDAY 17 MARCH
Well, just as I predicted. Things changed dramatically here last night. Boris announced a host of measures to slow the spread of the virus. Of most significance to me is the requirement for all over-70s to self isolate at home for 12 weeks!! I’m not sure how this applies to tourists – and I am not planning to obey the rule to the absolute letter. I will comply with the next level down of ‘social distancing’ until I can get home. I’ve written to Janie at Glenelg Travel to check the possibilities. I’m still feeling 100% well and am quite happy to stay here for a few more weeks if necessary. I did stock up on more food yesterday as a precaution as the panic buying scenario seems to have started here.
But now on to more pleasant things. Yesterday (MONDAY 16th) Monsieur Peugeot and I visited Belton House, a National Trust property near Grantham. Built in the 1600’s, it remained one of the residences of the wealthy Brownlow family until the upkeep costs became too great and it was given to the Trust in 1988. The last Lord Brownlow now lives in Jersey, aged 84.
Belton has formal gardens and lakes spanning over 50 acres, but in total its parklands cover more than 1000 acres. The house itself has the grand display rooms common to all the great stately homes, with impressive collections of paintings, tapestries, silver, ceramics and books. There are over 10,000 books in the huge libraries – one of the most important collections owned by the National Trust. At present they are all being individually and painstakingly cleaned by specialists .. an enormous task!
I found it was very easy to spend nearly a whole day at Belton. In fact you could spend many days exploring the parks and gardens alone, but I opted for a wander through the house, and a guided tour of Below Stairs. At its peak, Belton had over 100 servants. Towards the end, only 47! The life of a scullery maid or kitchen boy must have been quite harsh, dashing along stone corridors or toiling in the huge kitchen, not to mention cleaning boots, polishing silver, lighting lamps etc. It all looked much more grim and cold than Downtown Abbey. They worked up to 11 hours a day when the family was in residence, then had to climb 93 stairs up to their sleeping quarters in the attic. But being ‘in service’ was a much sought-after occupation for rural villages in the 18th and 19th centuries, with secure bed and board and a few shillings in wages.
Well, this journal came to a sad and sorry end – and I never got to see any more of Lincolnshire. Things started ramping up very quickly as Covid took over the UK – and the world. There was absolutely no option but to take whatever flight Janie could get me onto. And everything happened over the course of the next 24 hours.
It wasn’t possible to get a seat on Singapore Airlines, so I had to fork out for another ticket on Emirates – and had to be at Heathrow in 2 days time. Very fortuitously and generously, Rose in Cholsey suggested I make my way to her place, spend the night and she’d drive me to the airport. This involved a reverse of the long trip I’d made just over a week ago …. taxi to Grantham, train to Kings Cross, then another train out to Cholsey. Normally Kings Cross, like all big London train stations, is heaving with people … but not this time. It was like a ghost town, eerily quiet. So I had no trouble getting to Cholsey and very gratefully accepted Rose’s hospitality.
Rose put me up in the new wing of her home … a lovely self-contained flat which in normal times she lets families use if they have to visit the nearby children’s therapy centre. It was so good to be back in this delightful village where I’d spent 2 happy months in 2011. We went for a walk around the village before dinner, which we shared with another of Rose’s friends … well-distanced from one another. As an ex-nurse, Rose wasn’t taking any chances.
Next day it was off to Heathrow – about one and a half hours away. And, unlike Kings Cross station, the airport was packed with people! Obviously everyone was trying to get back to where they’d come from. My flight was chockers … not an empty seat on the plane, so no possibility of social distancing.
24 hours later I was back in Adelaide – and into 2 weeks of quarantine. Wonder when I’ll ever get back to England again …..
This was the year I set out to walk St Patrick’s Way in Northern Ireland. Things didn’t go entirely to plan …. but there was still much to enjoy, so will focus on the positive!
I didn’t keep a diary during my time in Ireland. So, once again, it will now be up to the old shaky memory to come up with the goods – plus a collection of photos which I trust will capture something of the beauty of the Irish countryside, the highs and lows of St Patricks Way, and the fun that followed in Belfast.
Before setting out, I’d received advice and support from fellow-Camino pilgrim, Sam, who’d written an article about SPW for the Australian Friends of the Camino Chronicle. He was dividing his time between Australia, the US and Ireland – and happened to be in Belfast when I arrived. He very kindly drove up to Armagh to meet me and give me some last-minute tips and advice. Thanks Sam!
I flew to Dublin, then took a bus from the airport up to Armagh in Northern Ireland. With its two Cathedrals (Catholic and Protestant) and many famous megalithic stone-age sites, Armagh is the start of St Patricks Way (SPW). St Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, so what better place to start …..
To be precise, the Way starts at the Navan Centre, just outside Armagh, and up the road from where I’d booked to stay. The Navan Centre is one of Ireland’s most famous archaeological sites, the legendary site of pre-Christian kings. Today, the Centre is a fascinating interpretative centre with stories and videos of the myths and legends from over 2000 years ago. There are also reconstructed dwellings with actors ‘living’ the life of the ancient inhabitants of the region. In the typical damp and drizzle of Irish weather, I enjoyed wandering around the site, before finding the first marker for St Patricks Way, and stamping my passport.
Here’s my planned itinerary for the 82-mile (132km) walk.
Thurs 16 Aug
Arrive Dublin Catch bus X4 to Armagh from Term’l 1 Arrive Armagh Bus Centre 5pm
Accommodation: Fairylands Country House 25 Navan Fort Rd, Armagh BT60 4PNT
Friday 17 Aug
Visit Navan Centre 81 Killylea Road
Fairylands Country House
DAY 1 Sat 18 Aug
Walk to Tandragee 15km
Montagu Arms, 9-19 Church St, Tandragee BT62 2AF
DAY 2 Sun 19c Aug
Walk to Scarva 5-6km MEET PENNY Walk to Druminargle – another 5-6 km
Fielys Brae/ Moyad Bed & B’fast 44 Attical Rd, Kilkeel
DAYS 7 & 8 Friday 24 Aug Sat 25 August
2 nights at Meelmore Lodge
Meelmore Lodge at the base of the Mournes
DAY 9 Sun 26 Aug
Walk through the Mournes to Newcastle
Amble In, 14 Bryansford Rd, County Down BT33 oEQ Arrive mid-afternoon.
DAY 10 Mon 27 Aug
Newcastle to Ballykinlar / Tryella
The Heights. 3 The Heights, County Down BT30 8PU
DAY 11 Tues 28 Aug
DOWNPATRICK St Patricks Centre & the end of the walk
Air BnB 5C Gaol Lane Mews Downpatrick. BT30 6BD.
DAY 12 Wed 29 Aug
Thurs 30 Aug Fri 31 Aug Sat 1 Sept
Bus to Belfast BELFAST 3 nights
AirBnB (sharing with Nelson) 1 Parkgate Parade, Belfast BT4 1ET
Well …. that was the plan ….
Day 1 turned out to be very hot, and most of the 15km walk was on hard roads and tracks. Consequently, by the time I staggered into Tandragee – and up the final hill – I was completely knackered and had blisters the size of 20 cent pieces on both feet. Earlier visions of dinner and music in an Irish country pub rapidly disappeared …. and as it happened, there was a prize boxing fight on TV downstairs in the bar that night, with a local lad fighting and favoured to win!
Day 2 dawned and the blisters were angry. Nothing for it though … I had to push on because I was meeting Penny at Scarva, along the Newry Canal. Tried to take a short cut (which proved a mistake) so hobbled further than I probably needed to. Anyway, I got to Scarva to find a lovely tea-room by the canal, and a brass band scheduled to play in the rotunda in the gardens. Penny was held up along the way somewhere so I left a message and set off to walk slowly along the canal path, knowing she’d catch up. Sure enough … we met at Scarva lock and then had to find our way to Druminargle House – which turned out to be a rather gracious old farmhouse set back from the road.
DAY 3 involved another tiring walk along the canal, through the little hamlet of Poyntzpass, where I had the blisters seen to at a pharmacy, and on and on and painfully on, until we reached the outskirts of Newry. By this stage I couldn’t walk another inch, so we phoned a taxi which delivered us to Flagstaff Loft and our host, Peter, who turned out to be a very kind and charming Irishman (recently widowed and grieving) who seemed to enjoy our company and cooked us a great dinner – while also recounting many stories about the time of the Troubles in the 1980s. Newry, being right on the border between the Republic of Ireland (Catholic) and Northern Ireland (predominantly Protestant), was in the thick of the fighting and bombs. Even the very house we were in lost its roof and windows at the time. It certainly makes history real when you talk to the people who experienced the events.
By DAY 4, my leg had swollen to almost twice its size and a nasty rash was appearing. Fortunately we weren’t walking that day – and Peter offered to take us for a drive around the area. He was an excellent tour guide and we saw and learned a lot during the day …. from ancient stone circles and fairy rings, to ruined chimneys of homes where illicit poitin (Irish moonshine) was made and drunk, hilltops and valleys, ancient castles and popular tourist haunts. Throughout the day, we found ourselves crossing the border numerous times as the road twisted and curved. We heard that there are even homes built right on the border … with the kitchen in the Republic, and the bedroom in the North! Quite confusing when it came to paying for coffee and postcards too …. should we use Euro (for the Republic) or Pounds (for Northern Ireland)??
Late in the afternoon, we dropped Penny off at the bus station for her bus back to Belfast (or was it Dublin?). Back at the house, I limped upstairs to rest.
DAY 5. In normal circumstances, there’s no way I would have walked on such a blistered and inflamed leg … . but I had an itinerary to keep and accommodation booked. So, in the morning Peter drove me back to the marked Way for the next stage of the walk. (I know I missed a section of the walk through the middle of Newry …. but hey, who cares. Worse was to follow … )
I walked towards Rostrevor until early afternoon, by which time I was in quite a bit of pain – and fairly exhausted. With no phone box or even a village in sight, I had to resort to asking for help at a nearby house. At last some luck … the man who answered wouldn’t hear of my calling a taxi and insisted on driving me to my next BnB, about 5 miles away in the pretty seaside town of Rostrevor. Also, (maybe not surprising in Ireland), he turned out to be the brother-in-law of Peter, our host in Newry!
The BnB people were just as kind and caring as everyone else along the Way. I was driven to the local doctor the next morning – and then to the pharmacist for the prescribed antibiotics. Although the Dr didn’t name it, it turned out that I’d developed cellulitis, a nasty bacterial skin infection probably caused by burst blisters. Left untreated it can rapidly become life-threatening. Fortunately I’m still here to tell the tale….
I had to catch a bus the next day, and then a taxi to my next BnB on a farm in the Mountains of Mourne. It was a bit sad to have to miss walking through the Mournes, but I did take the little Mourne Rambler bus which does a loop up and around the mountains, so got to see some of the local scenery. Fortunately I’d booked 2 nights at Meelmore Lodge in the heart of the Mournes so was able to rest and put my leg up for a while. Meelmore provides accommodation and a pleasant canteen for walkers and campers, and overlooks the spectacular mountains.
After a couple of days rest, though not completely 100%, I hit the trail again to walk through Tollymore Forest and along to Newcastle. Although the scenery was gorgeous, I can’t say I enjoyed the long walk much – and I got lost for a while. Sam and his wife had been setting out to surprise me by walking back along the Way from Newcastle, but when I didn’t appear (because I’d taken a wrong turn), they ended up walking back to Newcastle and waited for me there. Really, this Walk had turned into a saga of errors and mishaps.
After a night in Newcastle, I limped along the beach and then inland to somewhere in the vicinity of Tyrella. Enjoyed a pub lunch before hobbling on a bit further, then resorting to taking a bus to Ballykinlar for the night.
On the last day I walked a short distance to a nearby service station for a hearty breakfast, then waited 2 hours for a bus for the last leg into Downpatrick.
Well I’d tried … . but can’t honesty say that I really walked St Patrick’s Way.
However, Sam had arranged for the Director of the St Patrick’s Centre to meet me and present me with my Certificate. He was absolutely charming, and I very much enjoyed spending time at the Centre with its displays and stories about St Patrick’s life and its excellent cafeteria.
I spent 2 more days in Downpatrick and discovered the supposed tomb of St Patrick outside the Cathedral, also took a bus ride out past some of the other places that mark St Patrick’s history.
And then it was time to head back to the city.
BELFAST – a weekend with old friends The bus from Downpatrick to Belfast was an easy ride, and I managed to walk from the bus station to the pre-booked BnB to wait for Nelson’s arrival. This was another chance for us to catch up and see a bit more of the world together. He duly arrived on his bike, after taking the ferry across from Liverpool. He was still living on his boat, somewhere in the north of England.
We enjoyed exploring Belfast – Nelson hadn’t been here before either. It seemed a city of contrasts …. some lovely old buildings, interesting modern streets and squares, pubs with good food and flags flying everywhere. Lots of Union Jacks (they’re fiercely patriotic in Northern Ireland) but also banners, murals and bunting telling something of the story of the troubled history of fighting between Catholics and loyalist Protestants. We didn’t even get to Shankill Rd, Falls Rd or any of the other streets of West Belfast which (sadly, I think) are now on the tourist trail.
But the highlight of our visit was, of course, the Titanic Museum. Located in the Belfast dockyards where the ship was designed, built and launched, the exhibition tells the story of her construction, her maiden voyage, and her ultimate demise in the Atlantic. At least 3-4 hours are needed to see and experience it all. It’s truly a world-class museum that provides a total visual and auditory experience.
My good friends, Sally and Colin, also made a trip up to Belfast to coincide with my time there. Was great to see them and to spend a fabulous day with them driving up the Antrim coast, enjoying lunch at a lovely, home-style restaurant, then continuing on to the Giant’s Causeway ….. another UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s an area of huge basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption – and obviously a very popular visitor attraction. We climbed over and amongst the giant rocks along and blazed away with phones and cameras. (Nelson chose to go for a marathon bike ride instead – so he missed it all.)
After three great days with special friends – and many shared meals and drinks … it was time to hoist the backpack and set off for Bilbao, Spain.
What a year! After visiting Berlin and the UK early in 2015, I couldn’t resist an offer to join Denise (friend from Adelaide) in France in October. Denise is an artist and had been painting in Tuscany, also travelling in Spain. She had a home exchange lined up in Lans en Vercors, near Grenoble. My English friends, Sue and Simon, had also offered us the use of their French home – very close to where I’d spent summer the previous year. Didn’t take long to arrange everything! We shared 2 weeks in an alpine chalet in Lans en Vercors, then 4 weeks in a lovely home in the Pyrenees in late autumn.
PARIS Wednesday 14th October…8am (before joining Denise)
First full day in Paris coming up, waiting for it to start. It’s still barely light outside and the city hasn’t properly woken up. I can hear the bells of Notre Dame right now as I sit here in my tiny little bedsit. It’s literally only a 5 minute walk to the great Cathedral and the River Seine. A fantastic location in the Latin Quarter.
Arrived at CDG airport at 1.30pm yesterday, caught the local train into the city and found the apartment relatively easily. It’s in an old building with a single door on the narrow little street. Two lots of codes to gain entry, and old worn stone steps to the spiral stairs up to the 3rd floor. The room is like a little shoebox; when the bed’s pulled out there’s about 1 sq metre to stand in. Maybe an impoverished artist lived here many years ago. Not much room for an easel though. Rue Maitre Albert down below has a number of artists’ studios, a couple of modern design places and an Artistique Tateour (tattooer), also lots of bars, cafes and superb food shops in nearby Place Maubert.
I walked around the district yesterday afternoon and spent 5 minutes in Notre Dame. But with more phones, cameras and selfie sticks than stained glass windows, it’s not a great experience these days. Why can’t people just look and enjoy the real thing?.?
It’s now Thursday 15th – but I’ll continue with Wednesday’s activities:
The day lived up to all expectations. Started with typical French breakfast (coffee and croissant) in Place Maubert. Then walked. And walked, and walked and walked some more. After strolling through gardens, along the river bank, another quick look inside Notre Dame and Isle St Louis, I joined a guided walk around the Latin Quarter. Shakespeare and Co (my favourite bookshop in the world), old churches, old Roman streets, jazz clubs, famous old pubs, Sorbonne University, Cluny museum , the Pantheon and other delights of the area-all within minutes of where I’m living
Finished the tour in good time to meet Nelson for lunch. He was on his way back to his boat after a short visit to Jocelyne’s, so he hopped off the train at Gare de Lyon, unfolded his bike and pedalled over to Place Maubert …. Really great to have time to talk and laugh and remember the amazing summer at Can Guillet last year, when he fell in love and I watched the whole drama with Jocelyne unfold (see ‘2014 France’ for all the details.) For anyone who may be interested….Jocelyne still hasn’t sold the house, she and Nelson continue to enjoy holidays together, Jean-Pierre is being difficult, and she is still quite emotionally fragile, struggling without much money and very uncertain what the future holds. Nelson’s providing lots of support but can’t (doesn’t want?) to be there full time. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Jocelyne again in a few weeks. Denise and I will be living close to her on the mountain. After lunch, Nelson and I had coffee in the little bakery that Shakespeare and Co has just opened next to the bookshop. Then he flipped out his bike again and pedalled off to catch his next train!
In the evening I became a true tourist and did a River by Night cruise. only €10 and worth it. Paris sparkles by night. All the bridges and famous buildings are lit up and even on a cold evening with light rain, it all looked very pretty.
Thursday 15th October
With only a few hours left in Paris, I filled them very happily with a visit to the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages, a delightful small museum in an ancient Benedictine convent, in the Sorbonne district. It has a wonderful collection of sculpture, wood carving and tapestries from the 12th to 15th centuries. The artisans of that time were amazing . The pieces are superb. The most prized items in the museum are the famous tapestries of The Lady with the Unicorn. These 6 huge tapestries were rediscovered in the 1800s in a state of disrepair, but have since been beautifully restored. There’s still some mystery surrounding the artist and the weavers, but historians have several theories about who commissioned them and what they mean. (There’s also a novel by Tracy Chevalier that I read recently that throws some fictional possibilities about their origin.)
I discovered a local bus, minutes from my little street, that went straight to Gare de Lyon, so took my bags and myself there to catch the TGV (very fast train) down to Lyon in the afternoon….an easy and fast trip.
It’s now Friday 16th, but I’ll leave all descriptions of Lyon until next time.
FRANCE 2 LYON Saturday 17 October
Time in Lyon has been just as action-packed and enjoyable as Paris. Amazing what you can do and see in a day and a half. But it’s nearly up and I’ll be catching the train to Grenoble later this morning.
This has been my first visit to Lyon. Must try to get back one day. Stayed in the old part…always the most interesting…and this city really is old. Lots of Roman ruins and much evidence of pre-Christian times. Every building seems to have at least 2 or 3 others underneath, only discovered when renovations get done. For example, the cathedral of Saint-Jean has been restored many times over the centuries with archaeological evidence showing that it was a Christian place of worship from when the first of the disciples came through to spread the word. The old streets and houses also hold many secrets that are still being discovered – false ceilings, hidden doors etc.
Apart from the history of Lyon, the geography is also quite impressive. Established at the confluence of two great rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, it sits in a valley with high hills on either side. Many bridges span the rivers , and the main thoroughfares mostly run parallel to the rivers in the old town. However there are hidden tunneled lane ways that connect the main streets – known as ‘traboules’. There’s a network of over 300 of these through and under old Lyon , with people living in small apartments built around the hidden courtyards. Only a few are now open to the public on guided tours in daylight hours. There has to be 100% agreement from all the residents of any traboule to allow it to be accessible. In return, the city council pays for electricity and cleaning of the common areas, stairways etc.
It seems that the traboules were originally built as simple thoroughfares , but there’s a connection to the silk book printing trades that were the key industries in Lyon in the middle ages. Work got done, and goods were carried through these tunnels. The workers lived in the little houses in the towers and courtyards behind the main streets. They were also used by the French Resistance during WW2 to print leaflets and hide soldiers. It’s hard to imagine what the living conditions would have been like in the very early days before electricity and plumbing, but these days the apartments in the traboules have all the mod cons of the 21st century, as well as the charm of ancient stone work, old wells, spiral stairways and other decoration.
The other special thing to do in Lyon is to take the funicular cable car up to the Basilica on top of one of the hills overlooking the city. This huge church (the Fouviere ) was only built in the 1800s, so not very old by French standards. Well I’ve seen a Cathedral or two in my time, and admit that I’m generally not particularly awe-struck by any of them these days, but this one blew me away. It’s absolutely sumptuous inside….gold, mosaics, carved pillars, marble… all the trimmings of any good cathedral, but especially rich and gorgeous. I walked around a bit up on the hill, but as it was a very cold day, I decided to give the ancient Gallic ruins a miss and caught the funicular down again. On a warmer day, it would be good to walk all the way down the hill with fantastic views of the town and the rivers all around.
Lyon is famous for its cuisine too. There are small restaurants known as bouchons all over the place. I had a typical French dinner one night – choice of 3 or 4 entrées , mains and dessert or cheese for a fixed price. All OK, except that I found I couldn’t read the menu properly, and ended up with quail for the main course – a few stringy bits of meat on tiny bones. Luckily the rich, flowing chocolate coulant for dessert was divine.
I worked out that I must have walked at least 16 km in Lyon one day. Shades of the Camino again. Even saw the golden way markers outside the cathedral that indicated this city was also on one of the great pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Sunday 18 October – now in Lans en Vercors
Left Lyon yesterday morning by train to Grenoble – about 1 hour away. The scenery became more and more spectacular as we climbed towards the Alps. Huge, rocky mountains and lush green valleys with picture postcard houses and cows.
Was great to meet Denise and our French hosts, Denis and Marie, at the station in Grenoble. Everything worked perfectly… Denise had flown up from Bilbao in Spain. Her bus from the airport and my train from Lyon arrived minutes apart, and Denis and Marie then drove us up to their little chalet that will be our home for the next 2 weeks. They now live in a nearby village, but have kept the chalet to rent out in the ski season. This whole beautiful valley is under metres of snow in the winter – it’s very much a ski resort/ alpine village. Marie was actually an Olympic skier and trainer of young elite skiers. No skiing for us in October, though there is snow high up on the mountains now and breath-taking autumn colours on the trees. It’s very, very beautiful.
Tuesday 20 October: Las en Vercors
We’re completely settled in this lovely valley now. Have explored the village of Lans, found all the local shops and cafes, places that have wifi, bus routes and so on. We’ve done a couple of great walks through the countryside, up a few hills, but no mountain climbs as yet. Yesterday we took the bus up to Villarde, about 7 km away, and a bigger town than Lans. Met a friendly young French woman in the tourist information office who kindly helped Denise sort out how to recharge her phone, and then took us for a gorgeous walk around the town, through sun-dappled forests, over grassy ski slopes, along mountain streams. In broken French and English we were able to communicate well and enjoyed her company…her name’s Chrystelle, she used to work as a train conductor, moved to Villarde 2 years ago after having a work injury, and is now looking for another job.
This morning was market day in Lans so we stocked up on fresh farm produce and crusty bread. Tonight we’re going to dinner at Denis and Marie’s place. Altogether, life’s good.
Started this on Friday 23rd October…..and it’s now Monday 26th. A lot’s happened in between, so it will be a challenge to get it all down. Here goes …..
Denise and I have been living in Lans en Vercors for over a week now . Apart from a short trip up to beautiful Annecy last Thursday & Friday, we’ve been getting to know our village and the surrounding villages, also enjoying some wonderful walks and meeting lovely friendly French people
Time has passed in a relaxed kind of muddled routine to fit with the working hours of the village. In much of France, everything closes for at least 2 hours in the middle of the day – but of course there’s no consistency about this. In some places Monday is the ‘day off’… in other villages it might be Tuesday or Wednesday. For example, our delicious bakery here is open from 6.30am to 12, then again from 2pm to 4, but the little supermarket in the village doesn’t open until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The bakery is worth visiting any time just for the sight and scent of the multitude of divine baguettes, cakes and pastries of every shape, size and colour, cream and custard. Mmmmm!!! Some evenings everything in the village is open…other nights it’s all completely asleep. We can only get wifi in the Office of Tourism for 20 minutes a day, but one of the local (very good & friendly) restaurants has it freely available so we’ve had quite a few coffees there to catch up with emails. So we’re learning when to buy bread, when the market’s on, when and where the buses go and generally feeling very relaxed and just going with the flow.
Our walks have taken us to neighboring villages, up and down hills and mountains and through the most beautiful forests and valleys. The walking paths are well way marked and there are endless magnificent views. One day we took the bus to Autrans, about 10km away. Arrived in the middle of the day when almost nothing was open – naturellement– but we did manage to find the only place to buy something to eat, and enjoyed the ambience of this little town, before walking about 5.5k to the next village, Meaudre. All the houses in all these villages are designed for the long snowy winters with steep sloping roofs and wooden shutters. The farms have big barns to house the animals when the snow comes, though we’ve been told that the cows actually get taken indoors every evening, all year round.
The weather has been quite mild all week and there’s not even a flake of snow left on any of the nearby mountains. Sometimes there’s an early morning mist and a nip in the air, but mostly glorious autumn days full of color and sunshine. Our most challenging walk yesterday involved a very steep mountain descent from the village of St Nizier down to Engins. Quite exhilarating – and exhausting! Fortunately someone had hammered some iron handrails into the rocks on the steepest ledges and we made it down safely over a couple of hours. Then, with not a bar or café in sight in the sleepy village at the bottom , and over an hour to wait until the next bus, we decided to hitch back to Lans. Got picked up by a very kind couple who dropped us at our front door.c
We’ve enjoyed chatting to the locals at the little market on Tuesday and Saturday morning while stocking up on fresh raspberries, mushrooms, pumpkin and other vegetables. My French is still fairly minimal, but better than last year , and I’m having some fun conversations with people we meet. Everyone’s extremely helpful and friendly. Marie and Denis also invited us to dinner one evening – had a lovely time with them and their two daughters speaking a mix of English and French, lots of laughs and plenty of good French food, wine and liqueurs. They live in Villard where we met Chrystelle the other day, about 7km up the valley
After the market on Saturday, we had coffee and lunch at Campe de Base (the friendly restaurant with wifi) then watched a wedding party in the main square with a colorful band of the bride’s friends dressed in funny fairy costumes, and a huge truck decorated with flowers and ribbons to take the happy couple away!
However, it was Saturday night that turned out to be one of the best experiences yet – truly unique and totally entertaining. A concert in a yurt up in the woods! We’d noticed a flyer for this event a few days previously so invited Denis and Marie and booked for the 4 of us. It cost 3 euro each for a wonderful evening of folk/rock/jazz & flamenco played by a local guitar and flute duo – along with local wines, cheese and other delights to eat during the break. We had to meet at the local Tourism Office at 6pm, then were directed to the location of the yurt about a 10 minute drive away. The last section involved walking up a stony track to a little plateau overlooking the valley to the yurt which had a furnace in the centre, wooden doors and floor , and comfortable padded benches to sit on. I wish I could describe the atmosphere and pleasure of being in a lovely, warm, round tent high in the woods above a French village with a group of about 35 happy French people, clapping and dancing to some fabulous music on a mild, moonlit night. Fantastic!
And now I need to go back a day or two to talk about our visit to Annecy, a beautiful town on a beautiful lake close to the Swiss border. Caught an early bus to Grenoble on Thursday morning – an hour down a winding mountain road – then a train to Annecy for 2 hours past high mountains, vineyards and green farm country. Everyone who visits Annecy loves it and we’ve now joined the club. It would be hard not to be captivated by the old town with its winding cobbled streets along little canals, the charming old higgeldy-piggeldy medieval houses, little shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. And then there’s also the lake with boats, white swans, gardens and glorious views in all directions. Even the newer part of town has a warm, attractive feel about it with interesting shops, easy walking streets and nice hotels. The one we stayed in was extremely pleasant, in a great location and quite reasonably priced. In short, Annecy was lovely. I even managed to shake off the last effects of the cold I’d picked up in Lyon. On our second day there, we caught a local bus to Duingt, a village further around the lake, then climbed up to a little grotto that overlooked the whole wonderful world of French/Swiss lakes and mountains. Quite impossible to stop taking photos!
It’s now Tuesday 26th October – and there have been 2 more excellent days since the last paragraph above. It’s hard to keep up with the diary when life’s just so good. We spent Monday exploring Grenoble, and today enjoyed a great walk through forests and mountain passes with Denis and Marie, then lunch at their place, followed by a visit to the local museum. More from the Vercors next time
FRANCE 4: Friday 30 October 2015
It’s the most glorious sunny day today….a brilliant blue sky, not a cloud in sight, snow-capped mountains in the distance and white jet-streams of planes flying off to other parts of Europe. It’s also the first day we’ve had at ‘home’ with no social engagements. And the first time I’ve had to write anything for over 4 days. The temperature gauge on the verandah is showing 25 degrees at present. Quite amazing at this time of the year in the Alps. When we arrived here 2 weeks ago, the hills were ablaze with red, gold, amber and russet, but most of the leaves have now fallen, the trees are nearly bare and everyone is waiting for the snow. There have been some falls on the high mountains over the past couple of days. We can even see snow in the distance from the chalet and on our walks in the woods.
But now I must take myself back to Grenoble to recall what we did last Monday. It’s about a 3/4 hour bus ride to the city from here, down a very winding road. Grenoble’s an attractive city on two rivers, surrounded by mountains. The highlight for visitors is a ride up in the cable car (or “bubbles” as they’re called here) to the Belvedere fortress which overlooks all of Grenoble. It’s a nice place at the top, with fabulous views. We wandered around, enjoyed a coffee on the sunny terrace, watched children playing on the adventure ropes and climbing equipment, and read all the information about the history and geology of the Alps. The ride up and down was great.
With several museums and other attractions to choose from, we opted for the Museum of the Resistance to learn more about the war years in France, and the Resistance movement in the Vercors in particular. We’d already been told about the German atrocities that occurred in some of the villages in this area at the end of the war, and we’ve seen many crosses and memorials in the fields and villages. The museum provided a comprehensive overview of WW2 in France, including the collaboration of Marshall Petain with the Nazis when it seemed that Germany would conquer all of Europe, the role of the Vichy French government – and the the call of Charles de Gaulle urging France to resist. The underground resistance movement grew all over France, but Grenoble and the mountains and valleys of the Vercors became a significant centre. It had been thought that this area would be impenetrable, being naturally protected by the mountains, and so it proved until almost the end of the war. However, as one of their last acts of aggression (or revenge), the German army stormed the valley, destroyed the villages and massacred the people. There’s another big museum and memorial at Vassieux further down down the Vercors from here, one of the few places we haven’t managed to get to yet.
On Tuesday, we took the bus to Villard. .Denis and Marie picked us up and took us to their home for lunch – another feed of home-cooked French delights. Then in the afternoon, we all went for a lovely walk through the woods above the deep Gorge de la Bourne. The forest woodland looked like a fairy world with magical mossy mounds and carpets of autumn leaves, but when we emerged we were high above the Gorge, overlooking massive rocky cliffs and pine trees. We followed a little track along the edge for a while. Quite safe, but not a place for anyone scared of heights. Returned the way we came and drove back to Villard for the rest of the afternoon. The local history museum and art gallery only opens from 3pm to 6pm at this time of the year and we wanted to visit it. There was one especially beautiful exhibition in the gallery of black and white pictures in a decoupage style….whimsical scenes of French life done in very fine detail. The museum also had collections of old objects and photos depicting mountain life in days gone by, also a fascinating look at the history of skiing and winter sports, with old wooden skis, sleds, boots and other alpine equipment.
Marie and Denis seem to know every mountain path, back road, ski run and forest in the whole area, so they’re the best guides anyone could wish for. Their life has all been outdoor adventure sports – rock climbing, mountain biking, trekking, downhill skiing and cross country. Somewhat different from ours! We learn more about them every day. Found out yesterday that they’ve climbed Mont Blanc (highest mountain in Europe) several times, as well as most of the other snowy peaks we can see from our walks. Marie was head of a French national ski team when she was 20, and competed in the World Championships. Denis is heavily involved in the Alpine Mountaineer Club, having climbed mountains all over the world. For them, walking with us must be baby stuff -.but they’re very kind and generous friends and nothing seems to be too much trouble. They’re both retired now, but still walk, cycle and ski all the time
Wednesday turned out to be another fantastic day. We caught up with Chrystelle again, had coffee at Campe de Base while she planned an outing with us in her car – to the Grotto of Chorange. What a spectacular place this turned out to be. To get there we travelled along the winding road of the Gorge de la Bourne, the same gorge we’d walked high above the previous day. This road is listed in the travel brochures as one of the highlights of the Alps. It’s an amazing feat of engineering with rock tunnels, overhanging cliffs, big structures to deflect rocks and snow falling down from the cliffs above, and in some places is barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Chrystelle’s driving was put further to the test when heavy fog descended and heavy rain started – the first rain we’ve experienced here. But she got us through safely after a couple of detours and missed signs, and we arrived at the Grotto in the thick of clouds and rain.
The Grotto of Chorange is a massive underground cave system with a network of rivers, lakes, rock formations and exquisitely beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. The stalactites are extremely fine and delicate, and hang in sparkling curtains above the water below. Our young guide spoke very good English so we had a full explanation of how they’re formed and how old they are etc…but needless to say, I’ve forgotten the facts. I won’t forget the sheer beauty of the place though. At the end of the guided tour we had to climb 100 steps to a massive cavern where a fantastic Sound and Light show happened all around us. It was beautifully done, not at all tacky and touristy. Denis and Marie were very pleased to learn that we’d been taken there. It’s a special place, highly regarded by the locals On the return trip, still in heavy rain, Chrystelle stopped off at the very pretty little town of Pont de Royans. Here it was on with raincoats, hats and gloves again to explore the winding cobbled streets, the ancient houses hanging on the cliffs above the river, a quick look inside the Museum of Water and a serendipitous meeting with a man who is restoring one of the old houses and invited us inside. What a sight. Amongst his vast piles of tools and equipment, he’s slowly digging out a series of caves to turn the place into an underground restaurant. We’ll have to return next year to see how it’s going! I really liked Pont de Royans . Would love to see it again in sunshine
Back at the chalet we shared soup, bread, cheese, salad and local sparkling wine with Chrystelle. Also the dandelion aperitif liqueur she’d made and given to us. More orange and dandelion wine is still waiting to be enjoyed It was a stroke of luck meeting her….she’s been very generous and good company.
Thursday was spent with our other new French friends. Marie took us for another fantastic walk high above the spring and summer pastures, looking out towards the highest mountains. Up, up, up in the car to an alpine picnic spot, then down through the open grassland past mountain refuges and more picnic places. Quite a few other people around enjoying walks or bike rides up in this area too – families, dogs and keen mountain bikers. Our luck held as usual and the morning clouds lifted to reveal sweeping views over Grenoble and the jagged snowy peaks of some of the best mountains. On a really clear day it’s possible to see Mont Blanc from here, but I guess we couldn’t have everything in one day. The walk back involved a climb through the Pass of the Bear (none around these days) and through snowy pine forests. Very cold by the time we got back to the car…only 4 degrees!
In the evening we were invited to dinner with neighbours of Denis and Marie – Sylvean and Bernard. Sylvean is a former English teacher and speaks perfect BBC English with hardly a trace of an accent. She was keen to meet us as she spent 6 weeks in Sydney with a group of her students some years ago. They were a delightful couple with a lovely home, and we were only too happy to speak English with her, while enjoying more French food and wine. Real French champagne to accompany desert too ….
It’s now Saturday 31st (Halloween). And the past two days have been gloriously sunny. Temp got to the high 20’s during the day and everyone has been revelling in it. Denise and I thoroughly enjoyed having a lazy day, sitting on the verandah, with an afternoon stroll up to the village for a beer and coffee. Last night (Friday) we took Denis and Marie to dinner at the Nepalese restaurant in Lans en Vercors. Great food and another fun evening. Of course they’ve been to Nepal several times for climbing and trekking, also Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau so we shared some travellers’ tales over a feast of Nepalese goodies.
And today (Saturday) is our last day here. We’re going up to watch the World Cup rugby final on TV at Campe de Base later today. Don’t know a thing about rugby, but with Australia and NZ playing off, we thought we’d better cheer our team on. I think we’re the only Aussies in the valley at present, so hopefully the local crowd will support the Wallabies too.
Tomorrow we fly to Toulouse, then take the train to Albi. ..so now it’s time to sort and pack.
Carcassonne Tuesday 3 November
Once again, a wonderful collection of sights and experiences have been our lot since the last time I wrote. Finished the last entry back at Lans en Vercors about to watch the World Cup rugby final. Have never watched a rugby match in my life before, but with Aust playing NZ – and half of France eagerly following the outcome – Denise and I felt we should wave the flag for ‘our’ team. Sadly they let us down, along with most of the crowd packed into Camp de Base. But it was fun watching and cheering when anything happened . I think everyone was keen for the Wallabies to win because the All Blacks beat France in the 1/4 final. Anyway it was a fun night.
The fun in the bar didn’t stop when the rugby finished. Chrystelle called in for a while to say goodbye…then Denise and I stayed on to hear an attractive, sexy, young French singer (male) perform as part of the comedy festival that had been going on all over the Vercors valley during the week. His name’s Gerald Genty. He has a great voice, a ton of personality and a naughty twinkle in his eye. We couldn’t take our eyes off him! Didn’t understand the songs or the jokes, but loved the performance. A fantastic evening to finish a lovely couple of weeks.
Next day (Sunday 1st) was full-on travel. Bus to Grenoble (3/4 hour), bus to Lyon airport (1 hour), hanging around the airport (3 hours), plane to Toulouse (3/4 hour), bus from airport to railway station (1/2 hour), then train to Albi – another hour. Fortunately, Laurent, our charming BnB host, picked us up at the station, drove us to the apartment and carried my case up 3 flights of stairs. A long day, but a lovely place to arrive at. The apartment was a mix of ancient timber, brickwork, thick stone walls, great oak beams, many levels and 21st century luxury fittings and furnishings – all in the heart of the old city, a 2-minute walk from the Cathedral and the Toulouse-Latrec museum.. Highly recommended if you don’t mind ducking your head as you climb upstairs, or bending and ducking at the same time to get into bed under the eaves. The quaintness and beauty made up for the inconvenience, but I couldn’t stay there for 3 months as the previous occupants had – a retired couple from Canberra. Albi itself, however, is definitely somewhere I could happily immerse myself for 3 months or more. One of the most beautiful, charming medieval cities I’ve ever explored, with a fascinating and extremely brutal history…. (More later……)
WEDNESDAY 4 November… I’m now sitting in the centre of La Cite, the medieval city & castle at Carcassonne, waiting for Denise to finish a tour inside the castle. Having been here (done that) just 18 months ago, I decided to spend the time wandering through the little streets window shopping and now catching up with some writing. It’s like stepping back into the middle ages with pretty and very tempting little boutiques everywhere within the city walls. It’s also another gorgeous sunny day
We’re now staying in another nice BnB not far from La Cite….not as luxurious as he place in Albi but a great location again. Laurent, our host in Albi, drove us to Toulouse yesterday, from there we took the train on to Carcassonne. This B’nB apartment has a great view of the old city – especially when it’s floodlit at night
So, I’m back here and revelling in it. I’m still a bit obsessed with the story of the Cathars who lived peacefully here in the south of France in the 12th and 13th centuries before they were branded as heretics, hunted down and completely annihilated by the Popes and Bishops of the Holy Roman church. (As our current BnB host said last night … yet another travesty the Catholic Church should answer for.) Well, yes, times were different then, and the church ruled supreme, but the massacres, looting, burning and decimation of so many gentle people who didn’t happen to believe in the church’s teachings was nothing short of ethnic cleansing on a grand scale. Last year I got to visit some of the final strongholds of the Cathars…stone fortresses high on top of rocks and mountains in the local countryside…. and I’m keen to try to learn and remember more of the stories of this tragic episode of French history.
Albi was also a stronghold of the church rulers. After the crusades against the Cathars, the most powerful bishop at the time had the most enormous, formidable cathedral built in the middle of the city as a symbol of the strength and permanence of the church. It’s absolutely massive, and built completely of brick, the tallest brick structure in France. One can’t help but be overawed by the size and solidity of it. It must have really put the fear of God into the local people back in the Middle Ages
But Albi is a truly beautiful little city. Most of the houses in the old city are made of timber and brick at odd angles, overhanging the street or lopsidely jam-packed into tiny lanes and squares. They have crooked little windows, wooden shutters and heavy old doors. Many have pretty flower boxes on window sills or balconies. It’s picture book stuff, but completely real with modern day people living inside.
The cathedral and the bishop’s palace next to it completely dominate the Centre. The Berbie Palace now houses the national Toulouse-Latrec museum. Both buildings overlook the pretty River Tarn, with sculptured gardens, terraces and watch towers completing the picture. From the other side of of the river – across one of the oldest bridges in France – there are great views of these big brick monoliths. Well worth the short walk to get some photos.
Henri Toulouse-Latrec was born in Albi to an aristocratic family. Born with a genetic bone disease, he suffered much ill health and had a very small stature. But what an artist! And what a life….a mix of privilege, decadence and pursuit of excellence. The museum/gallery houses thousands of his drawings, paintings, posters and photographs. Many are so well known of course ….the singers and dancers of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge…but he also painted superb portraits of friends and family, and other scenes of French daily life. To see the complete exhibition, you walk through amazing rooms and old chapels of the original bishop’s palace. It’s a total merging of art and architecture and a very enriching experience. I’m so glad to have finally visited Albi
Sorry ….. lots of jumping around has happened in this diary, but might as well round off with the day following our sightseeing in Carcassonne. Today is Thursday 5th November and we’ve travelled on further south to Perpignan, and are now extremely comfortably installed in Sue and Simon’s house in the Pyrenees. Jocelyne met us at the station, as planned…..and surprise! Nelson also appeared. He ‘d made a spur of the moment decision to come down to stay with Jocelyne for a few days So they drove us back to Reynes and up the mountain to this lovely house where we’ll be spending the next couple of weeks. I feel as if I’ve come “home” to my place in France. It’s just 18 months since I was living here and enjoying a wonderful summer in the south of France. This year it’s well into autumn of course, but still warm and sunny. This is going to be a happy fortnight ahead!
Tuesday evening: 10 November
After a few very active days up here in the Pyrenees, we decided our aching (aging? ) limbs had done enough climbing and hiking to warrant a day of just lolling around in the beautiful sunshine. The weather has been true south-of -France perfection. A bit cool for swimming but definitely T-shirt ( or less) when sitting out on our terrace looking at mountains and valleys, a few distant farm houses and a brilliant blue sky.
Over the past few days we’ve walked for many kilometres, scrambling up mountain sides to get even better views, or just hiking down the road and little tracks to the village bus stop 6 km away. The bus throughout the Languedoc region still costs only 1 Euro for as far as you want to go. We’ve already had two very full days out, firstly down to the nearest town, Ceret, for the wonderful, weekly Saturday morning market. Absolutely everyone in town enjoys the atmosphere of this market with colourful stalls filling every winding street in the centre. … fantastic fresh fruit and vegetables, also local crafts, interesting clothes, cheese, baskets, jewellery, paintings, flowers….everything. We spent time and money and wished we had more of both.
The other big outing was to Perpignan yesterday, involving the usual 6km walk down, then an hour bus ride (1 Euro), then walking all day through the city – and another 1 hour trip back to Reynes to begin the long trudge up the mountain to the house. Fortunately we struck it lucky and hitched a lift before we’d gone too far – a lovely young couple who brought us right to the door. In Perpignan we visited the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, one of the prime tourist sights and one place I didn’t visit last year. As palaces go, this one wasn’t particularly spectacular, though the architecture, brick and stone work was interesting with more Spanish and North African influences. Perpignan is said to be one of the most ethnically diverse cities in France with a mix of French, Spanish, Catalan , Algerian, Moroccan and Romany. Many of the streets of the old city have a distinctly North African feel. It’s a pleasant, laid-back kind of city with a canal and a river, lots of little plazas and grand squares and interesting shops…when they’re open. Being a Monday, lots of places were closed so it wasn’t as colourful as I remembered it from last year, but we still enjoyed the day, even with tired legs and feet
Several days later….
More of the same. Lots and lots of walking – mainly because there’s no choice up here where we’re living. Jocelyne has given us a lift down a couple of times , but every day except one we’ve walked at least once, up or down. Sometimes both ways. Thought I’d die after trudging up in the dark yesterday. It’s completely dark by 6pm, so to avoid the night we really need to start the uphill climb by about 4.30. Easier said than done, because buses are not frequent down on the main road and we can’t always get back to Pont de Reynes by then. However we’re still ok and have coped well with two very late, dark night walks home. The most challenging was the walk back over the mountains from Ceret one afternoon. I did this route several times in summer last year, but landmarks look different in the fog and fading light, and by the time we’d covered about 6km of little tracks and climbs through the forest, we had to do the last section back to Jocelyne’s house down the mountainside in the pitch dark, aided only by the torch light from my mobile phone. The wild boars probably heard the stumbling and swearing!
Highlights this week have been 2 visits to Palalda and one to the fantastic Museum of Modern Art in Ceret.
Palalda is a very picturesque medieval hilltop village not far from here. Ancient houses, winding stairways, a 12th century church, pretty flower boxes and cats….and superb views of neighboring towns, villages and valleys. Last year I was amazed to find a tiny museum up in Palalda telling the story of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish, artist, architect and designer. I learned then that he’d spent some years in this part of France, painting. Denise wanted to see both the village and the Mackintosh museum, so we made our way there during the week, only to realise that it was 11th November- Armistice Day, which is still very much honored by the French. Hardly surprising given the impact of WW1 on this country. Anyway, there we were in Palalda when the village band marched up to the tiny market square, with flags held aloft, and the local dignitaries wearing their medals The Mayor made a speech, someone sang a patriotic song, then everyone (including us) stood up for a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise. It was all rather moving, and quite unexpected. There were only 20-30 people altogether throughout the ceremony….everyone adjourned to the only little bar/restaurant for a break, so we joined the crowd and sat in a lovely sunny window overlooking the rooftops and valley below. Of course the Mackintosh museum was closed for the day, but there was still more afternoon entertainment to enjoy. After the drinks break, the band struck up again and the people started dancing the traditional Catalan circle dance, the ‘sardane’ . Anyone could join in, but it would be essential to know the steps – and these local people dreally did. They danced with incredible energy and enthusiasm …the eldest, we learnt, was a dear old man of 89! He’d probably been hopping and skipping the sardane all his life…. It turned out to be such an enjoyable day up in the Palalda sunshine, with music, friendly people and local culture, – despite the museum being closed
Charles Rennie Mackintosh still beckoned, however, so we made a repeat trip up to Palalda the next day, helped by a lift with Jocelyne down the mountain. After hiking up the winding streets and steps of the village again… voilà! …we found the museum was open. It’s only small but very interesting with some good videos of his early life, lots of photos and prints of his works and a good overall description of his time in the south of France. Spent a bit too much time there and in the neighboring leather-worker’s gallery, hence the late start walking back up. Arrived home absolutely dead-beat…. no luck with hitching a ride this time.
The other excellent art gallery in these parts is the Museum of Modern Art in Ceret. So many well known artists spent time in this little town in the 1920’s (Mattise, Picasso, Miro, Braque , Dufy and others) and all painted their impressions of the region. It seems that Ceret hasn’t changed much in almost 100 years….the same trees, houses, streets and mountains can be seen in all these great paintings. Picasso sculpted a series of bowls decorated with bullfighting scenes in 6 days…24 in all…and gave them to the gallery. In addition to this permanent collection by all these artists, the gallery also houses superb temporary exhibitions and the current one that we were very fortunate to see is by Spanish sculptor, Jaume Plensa. I’m sorry to say that I’d never heard of him before, but his work is magnificent. He’s exhibited in New York, Chicago, Berlin, Paris and the UK…one day we’ll see him in Australia hopefully. His work is huge…metal, resin, stone and other materials…all on the theme of human universality…how we are all the same, despite different languages, religions, culture etc. The documentary film about him showed him to be a truly beautiful person, and his art is quite mesmerizing.
Sunday 15th November:
Had a day at home today. Spent the morning pruning the big leafy tree on the terrace at the front of the house. Sue and Simon didn’t have time to do it before they left and asked if we’d mind….seemed a reasonable request in exchange for 2 weeks free accommodation. Don’t know what sort of tree it is, but there are lots of them in gardens and town parks in France and Spain and they get cut back drastically at this time of the year. They end up looking like knobbly old skeletons- and that’s what ours is now. Must confess we had some help from Robert, an English guy who’s staying with Jocelyne and whom I got to know last year…. so now the job is done and we don’t have the shady shelter on the terrace that we’ve enjoyed until now. The weather continues to be hot and sunny without any wind…absolutely perfect.
Tuesday 17th November
Went down to the Ceret market again yesterday. Also called in to see Nathalie who gave me some French lessons in the Cybercafe last year. Did the long walk back over the mountains – a very pretty, but quite hard trek. Much easier in daylight though!
Had a great day out with Jocelyne today. Drove down to Collioure, my favorite beach on the Mediterranean. It’s such a pretty place with the old town spreading down the hill to the sea, a massive old fort right at the water’s edge and little bays around the coast with houses of salmon pink, mustard yellow, soft blue …and bright shutters, flowers , trailing bouganvillea….mountains in the background, boats, blue sky and warm sun. However, because it’s out of season now, not all the inviting little shops, galleries and bars were open, but I remember the charm of the whole place very well from last year when Jocelyne and I visited and swam many times. But even with closed shops and restaurants, the sea, sky and colors made Collioure a gorgeous place for today’s outing.
Denise and I entertained Jocelyne and Robert for dinner last night….very enjoyable to share good food and wine with friends in such a lovely setting. Earlier in the day we’d walked down to Amelie les Bains to visit the local fruit and veg market, and while there, we participated in the nation-wide minute of silence for the people of Paris. I had begun to think that the terrible events of last week had somehow bypassed the south of France, but clearly the people of Amelie les Bains wanted to pay their respects and were deeply affected by the attacks. After the minute of silence at midday, John Lennon’s voice came across the square outside the Town Hall, singing “Imagine”….. this was followed by the local people singing the Marsellaise together. A short but moving little ceremony.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) we have to pack and clean, ready to leave on Thursday….and it’s time I finished off this diary for France 2015. A l’annee prochaine. … (until next year …)
Clive, my friend from Portugal, suggested we meet in Thailand for a short break in the tropics – for him to escape the European winter, and for me to just have a holiday, rather than work, in Thailand. I flew to Bangkok, then Koh Samui, on the same plane as Bron and Michael (daughter and son-in-law) after their wedding. They were off on their honeymoon, and I was going to celebrate my 70th birthday on February 7 2014.
I caught up with Clive at Koh Samui where we spent a few days – including my birthday – before taking the ferry over to Koh Phangan. The birthday dinner was at the beautiful Zazen Restaurant, almost on the beach, overlooking a big bay. Bron and Michael joined us – and the delightful staff at Zazen joined in singing Happy Birthday!
Koh Phangan is a short ferry trip across from Koh Samui, but the beach we were to stay at was at the top of the island, furthest from the ferry port. Mai pen rai …. no worries! Clive rented a small motor bike (like all the farangs/foreigners do on the Thai islands) and we rode up to ‘our’ beach, luggage and all. We seemed to cause a bit of amusement among some of the younger backpacker travellers …. but Clive’s ridden motorbikes around the world, from tip to toe in Africa and all over Europe, so I wasn’t a bit worried.
It was worth the hour-long bike ride to get to our beach … one of the prettiest on the island. We enjoyed drinks and dinner every night at different tiny bars or restaurants, sometimes right on the sand. (Memories of time spent years ago with husband and children on the beaches of Kerala, India).
And then we did it all again at the same time of year in 2016. Another birthday celebration on Koh Phangan for me. This time it ended with a massive storm. After days of sunshine and blue seas, ominous signs of trouble ahead came with all the boats in the bay disappearing to safer harbours, and all ferries being cancelled. When the storm struck, the sea was raging and crashing into the resorts along the beach … including ours. As soon as I could, I decided I’d had enough (not because of the storm), so I escaped to Koh Samui for the last 2 nights. Clive suggested another trip in 2018, but by then I’d visited Thailand at least 5 or 6 times and had plans for other adventures in other places. (Clive and I had also met up in Portugal in 2012 and 2013 … before our jaunts to Thailand. )