British Museum Treasure Hunt

From a diary entry 10th December, 2013: London

One of the joys of international research is that often you get to have quite lengthy email back and forth discussions with the managers charged with gatekeeping collections. Sometimes all the way down in the Antipodes, one doesn’t quite realise just how many gates one must pass in order to be admitted to the inner, hallowed sanctum of a reading room.

With such an established institution as the British Museum, this should come as no surprise though. Millions of items dating back through antiquity and beyond are now even more precious than they were to the Georgians who began collecting them (through sometimes less than savoury means – but that’s another story altogether).

The conversation began by email between myself and a staffer of the Prints and Drawings Room, as I was interested in seeing what they might have collected as a background to the famous goldsmith, Peze Pilleau.

It culminated with the directions:

“We are limited to 12 places so I would suggest that you try to get here as close to 10.00 if possible. It is best to come via the North entrance which is at the back of the museum in Montague Place – take the lift to the 4th floor, you will come to a set of double doors leading to our exhibition gallery (Room 90), turn right & behind the Michelangelo cartoon is the entrance to the Print Room -please ring the bell. Please bring some form of ID with you.”

It was enough to make me feel like my visit would resemble an episode of Get Smart.

So the day came. As I was to enter through the back door of the Museum, I thought it best to disembark the Tube at Russell Square, closer than Holborn which is nearer the front of the Museum. Conveniently (not), that had 176 stairs to street level, no options.  Then I went on a 10 minute adventure through a children’s playground and several parks that weren’t Russell Square as I had expected, but in the opposite direction to that intended, making me late for my 10am appointment. But even when I’d got to the back door, there were many more gates to pass through.

Note to self for next time you’re running late: when you find the two Aslan lions lackadaisically sentinel with paws crossed, as if guarding the ark, enter with caution. Do not presume to leave your cloak conveniently just inside the back entrance, because that Cloak Room is for ‘members only’ and you’ll need a member’s card.

Then, use the accessible toilet because it is the only one within a waterbag-walk of where you are at present. Then, know that Room 90 is an active rotating exhibit gallery which will probably have an exhibit entitled ‘Japanese Art of Sex and Pleasure’.

Also, know that the Michelangelo ‘cartoon’ takes up a full tall-door sized wall.  Oh, and you can rattle the door to the Prints and Drawings Room all you like, but unless you press the top doorbell – brass (of course) you will stand there ALL DAY.  Bring a time-piece – the clock in the reading room maybe incorrect as it gets wound only once a week!!

I took the opportunity to go to the shunga exhibition later. It was full-on.  I have never seen (as you’d expect), so many over-sized penises assembled in one place. There was flesh everywhere – nothing left to the imagination.  It seems that the masculine inclination to hyperbole made it onto limited edition Japanese prints too – the features of porn are apparently everlasting. Men’s and women’s genitalia were equally displayed in all their glory – a democracy of erotica. It was quite a revelation and it seemed, considering the number of couples being caught in flagrante delicto through the wide open doors of Room 90, that the gatekeeping might have more appropriately been re-assigned.

Library tragic at the British Library

Diary entry 30th December, 2013: London

On Saturday, I made my debut at the British Library by requesting two books in French that contain details about our Hemer (Mathews) ancestors, the Pilleaus and Pezes from Le Mans.

As I was standing outside at 9.30am in the brisk air with twenty or so others, waiting to be ‘let in’, I wondered “have I just joined the ranks of the library tragic”?

Armed with nothing but our lead pencils, clear plastic bags and locker keys we race into the Rare Books and Music Reading Room to secure our seats. Wanting to be at the front of the line is only slightly less futile than wanting to be first in the queue for a plane trip, those books aren’t going any where fast, and some have been extant for several hundred years.   I suppose some positions might hold better Feng Shui or closer access to requests desk or the microfilm or the photocopier, but it still makes me smile. 

Mrs Dalton-Morgan, Librarian from Hawthorndene Primary School, would be proud of me. At the time when I visited, there was an exhibition showing. Where would we be without our Georgian ancestors? With fewer libraries and other ‘collections’ apparently!

Has a more poised and elegant ballerina ever been found curating an exhibition … ? Enjoy this window on Georgian life.

I hope to publish an article on one of the notable Georgian ancestors this year – look out for it.

 

The beginning of a ‘Big Year’ at Bool Lagoon

After 25 years driving the picturesque Mount Gambier to Adelaide road, and seeing the familiar brown Bool Lagoon sign just shy of Naracoorte, today I decided to turn off the road and see what it was all about. It was reportedly flush with birds after the past overly-wet six months, so I was hopeful of some good bird watching. Maybe it will be the beginning of my very first Big Year (2011, David Frankel).

As soon as you turn off the main highway, you start to see them.  Smaller break-away flocks flying in formation to and from the lagoon.  I’d borrowed the car from my aunt and uncle – they have a pass for all National Parks in Australia – handy! The CD skipped over to Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending. Not so sure I’ll see so many of them though.

The reserve is set firmly within a farming and wine-growing community, however I was still surprised to see a herd of cattle all over the road, being shepherded by their owner on quad-bike, just as I was going to turn in.

The stone wall announced Bool Lagoon Game Reserve, because yes, birds are still hunted here (although the duck and quail hunts had been restricted by the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources during the 2016 season). The announcement was made by Minister Hunter. Ironic.

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All manner of winged creatures greet you as you drive around at tortoise pace. It didn’t really feel right to even get close to the 40km speed limit, so I suspect I’m more a watcher than a twitcher or a chaser. Up close it’s dragonflies. Along the side of the small bitumen road, it is baby magpies, still finding their feet and wings.  Out in the lagoon, it is the black swans with their little broods trailing behind them and up in the air it is the large ibis and geese, writing their hieroglyph messages in formation to all who will watch.

I would like to have walked out across the lagoon on the board walk, but unfortunately it sits in disrepair. This is a bit of a tragedy, when it would be great to get out there amongst it – apparently it has been out of action for some time now.

Don’t forget to keep your eyes down too, as signs warn that the frogs and turtles also cross the roads.

Many of the birds that come to this lagoon are migratory, and boy do they flock together. Robert Lynd said, “In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.” Well,  I stopped at one point where the reeds made a grassed garden in the water and the large magpie geese honking to each other were less seen than heard.  They certainly make a racket. It was gorgeous in its isolation, if not silence. There were thousands of birds to see but I lost count after 10.

It was hardly like the film, I had virtually no competition for my front row seats in the bird hide at Hacks Lagoon, although another couple had arrived just after me, and proceeded to look around at their own pace. They didn’t resemble Owen Wilson or Jack Black one bit.

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I enjoyed my little visit, staying for about an hour, and then it was time for me to fly home to roost.  The day reminded me far more of that other beautiful bird film, Travelling Birds: An Adventure in Flight (2003, Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats). Oh to be able to fly with them like that. Being earth-bound though, I am content to just watch them, rather than count them, and appreciate their aerodynamics, strange habits and weird sounds.

“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” William Blake

Bool Lagoon, Naracoorte, South Australia.
Park fees apply – book online at National Parks South Australia.

The Tale of Genji – the Uji chapters

In the chapters of the book of my life, there are a number of leit motifs – common little elements that appear again and again. Some are musical, some are experiential and others are books. Sometimes all it takes is for one unsuspecting radio program to remind me of one.

It happened again on the 22nd December while listening to the Radio National Summer School program. Zoe Norton Lodge and Mark Sutton went in search of the definition of The Novel, then in pursuit of the earliest example.

The classics were noted, experts consulted, much conjecture ensued and the centuries slowly wound back before the conversation turned to the obscure (to some), The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.

I have never read the tome, but it has been in my consciousness since 1992, when it began to sit on the shelf of a long-term relationship, beckoning to be read along with Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights.  The Bronte I got to, but the others not so much.

I continued to fail to understand the significance of the The Tale of Genji but it made its presence felt again when I moved to Sydney in 2006. I couldn’t help but notice, and was fascinated by, a fellow Stanmore station commuter’s familiar brick-like choice each morning. It was the most unlikely work commute book I could imagine – it is around 1,100 pages long. I was always tempted to strike up a conversation about it for this fact alone.

When I visited Japan in 2012 for a Suzuki music conference in Matsumoto and had the opportunity to add on another few days in Kyoto, I was looking for things to see. The little river-side town of Uji caught my attention, not only as the centre of the Japanese green tea universe and its World Heritage-listed shrines and temples, but also because it was the scene of several of the chapters, the last ten to be precise, of The Tale of Genji. There it was again, that book!

According to the travel guides, Uji is also home to a museum dedicated to the story, two monuments on the edge of the river and a discovery trail (I’m ever so fond of a treasure hunt).  So, still having never read the book, I set out to educate myself about this significant story and possibly sample the green tea.

I’d made quite a late start, having dropped in to some other shrines and temples on the way to Uji that morning. I’d caught the train, and I knew I was in the right place given the sign greeting me near the station. Now I just needed to find the start of the trail.

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However, I needed an ice-cream refresh first. When in Uji, do as they do and eat their green tea icecream. After giving myself brain freeze, I found the trail and set off across the Kisen-bashi Bridge to To-no-shima Island, then continued to the other side of the river via the Asagiri-bashi Bridge, following the little brass plates in the pavement.

Just on the other side of the river, there is a monument to the chapters of the book that are set in Uji.  Here the lovers, Ukifune (meaning floating boat – or maybe floats my boat) and Prince Niou-no-Miya, are shown in a boat on the Uji-gawa River. Hikaru Genji has long-since died, but his son Kaoru and the Prince vie for Ukifune’s affections and she eventually jumps into the river to escape. This is clearly 11th century high romantic drama of epic proportions.

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Walking along small shady pathways past more shrines and temples, away from the main food and commerce area of the town, in time you arrive at the The Tale of Genji Museum. It provides a multi-media experience of the story and the “glamourous world of the Heian imperial dynasty”. It also has a great Japanese cafeteria and gift shop all housed in a  modern building, set in well manicured Zen-like gardens. Throughout the complex, every opportunity is made to reference the story, from the lunch trays to the lamps. The quality of the museum equals the apparent reputation of the book which Royall Tyler (interviewed on the program and one of the many translators of the book) described as a being a ‘flagship’ or ’emblem’ in Japanese literature.

Arcing back around into the town, you re-cross the river again via the Uji-bashi Bridge and a monument to the author, Murasaki Shikibu. Until I went to Japan, despite bumping into it a number of times, I never realised that ‘the first novel’ was written by a woman.

Murasaki was a born into a previously aristocratic family, and descended from a family line of notable poets. She wrote a diary, a volume of poetry and The Tale of Genji while a noblewoman in Kyoto.

Uji has a beautiful name and during sakura (cherry blossom) season, its vistas certainly match it. From the overgrown, bonsai-shaped trees to the narrow streets lined with gift-shops, tea houses and restaurants, there is plenty to see here, and it could easily fill two days or a lazy three days in your Japanese itinerary.  I felt a little rushed and it was hot in the afternoon, so I’d recommend wandering the trail early and taking in the shrines and temples in the afternoon. Whilst the area is quite traditional looking, it was still hard to imagine what this place may have been to the courtly writer or her protagonist.

In the late afternoon, I availed myself of a sweet ginger drink – a kind of ‘still’ ginger beer which was beautifully refreshing. I had a brief shop in a gift-shop where I bought the most exquisite threaded earrings (that’s a blast from the past – I wonder if that craze swept 80s Japan too) and in the evening, went back to a little restaurant in the middle of the ‘suburb’, surrounded by houses. I was early for dinner and I sat at the bar watching the chef assemble my little tray of delights. The food (as most is in Japan) was perfectly presented and of elegant sufficiency.

It is interesting to note that my latest little bump into the The Tale of Genji just confirmed what Royall Tyler said of it – “The Tale of Genji is more discussed, than read”. While I was listening to the radio conversation unfolding, I thought to myself, I wonder when it will next make its way into my life!

Uji is 20-30 minutes (depending on which train you take) from Kyoto on the JR Nara line. Cherry blossom season is around the first week of April in Kyoto – but check the internet for the forecast for each year.

Colourful architecture, French clocks and cricket balls.

Postcard from Christmas 2013

Until today, for me, portobello was a type of mushroom. Now I’ve had a Notting Hill experience (who was it that suggested it to me? Thanks btw), it will henceforth also mean colourful architecture, French clocks and cricket balls.

I started with a late breakfast at Jamie’s Recipease (a complete surprise I happened across after alighting from the #28 red double decker bus but not the same without my friend Jo W, [and after Googling, I realise closed just recently]). I got to write my journal upstairs at the East-facing, full length, sunny window bench whilst six keen adherents whisked furiously behind me at Jamie’s cooking class sans my friends Joanne R and Janelle (who would’ve loved it). 

Despite the sign for the Robert Redford film showing across the road at the Gate Cinemaall was not lost when I finally decided to venture back outside into the cool air wondering where all the crowds were heading. I followed, and found Portobello Road.

I’m glad to be here in winter – it would be even more of a human traffic jam if the road was fully packed with stalls, as I’m sure it is in summer.  I passed the showy counterfeit watches at the road stalls and shimmied into the second-hand shops in 6th-hand buildings, only to find real French clocks, silver-topped walking canes and cricket balls. I could even have purchased Banksy reproduction, if I’d been inclined.

I had a rustic Italian ‘dinner’ at 3.30pm consisting of artichoke risotto accompanied by prosecco then biscotti with espresso chaser at Osteria Basilico. This delightful corner ristorante was still decked out with its red Christmas decorations and snow covered fir tree branches in the window. It looked so inviting, how could I resist? Such a lovely accompaniment to the crisp weather.

No photos – you’ll just have to imagine.

Featured image by John Eckman, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons license Portobello Road, W11, London

Lorikeet Loop Walk, Belair National Park

There is nothing like a walk in the Australian bush at Christmas time to bring to mind the fanciful nature of the rituals we cling to.  Mention of Rudolf, sleigh bells and decorated fir trees conjures images from literally half a world away from the reality that is any one of our many Australian landscapes.  Australians have the uncanny ability to celebrate one thing, when observing in nature the complete opposite.

I have lived the European Christmas once. This week presented a sad reminder of it. I was at once enchanted and flabbergasted by the stark truth of celebrating the season depicted on our cards, carols and gift wraps, while rugged up to visit two German Christmas markets. Drinking mulled wine from little purpose-made cups, wandering between countless stalls full of handmade Christmas decorations and foods, the wafting smells of hot pretzels and sugar were perfect for the chilly weather of the northern hemisphere. It was not incongruous with our Christmas culture, just our Christmas place.

I returned to my home town of Adelaide this week to be with family and friends, and took the opportunity to walk each morning in the Belair National Park, literally down the hill from where I was born, in the dene where I grew up.  Sunday School picnics, primary school excursions and Corroborees (probably well-meaning yet insensitively-named back in the 1970s, with no mention of the traditional Kaurna owners) and later friend’s weddings at Old Government House have etched this landscape into long-term memory and imprinted familiar sensations.  My grandfather’s patient volunteering eradicating bone seed make this place the closest I have to a place of my ancestors, for a South-Australian of European extraction.

This magnetic park draws me each time I return home and I’ve become very familiar with the lovely 40 minute Lorikeet Loop Walk (and sometimes Valley Loop Hike extension to get the walk to over an hour).  In this week, there has been a gradual build up to the hottest Christmas day for 70-odd years for Adelaide, but despite the already warm mornings, the walks were shaded and not yet uncomfortably hot.

It is a testament to the hard work of the rangers (Harry Butler-types you sometimes see passing in their utes) that the wildlife is flourishing in the park.  The Belair Recreation Park of my childhood in 1970s was a very different place. Tall, abundantly leafy, introduced trees casting their cool, solid shade widely between well-tended ovals skirted by painted corrugated-iron huts evoking the deep green of Europe. Today, due to diligent work of volunteers also, this park contains many stands of the subtle coloured eucalypt grasslands now rare in the rest of the Adelaide Hills and plains, but the perfect and necessary environment for kangaroos, emus, koalas, bright pink and grey galahs, yellows of sulphur-crested cockatoos, bright blue of the Superior blue wrens, wood-ducks, magpies, kookaburras and crows – all of whom made their presence felt as I walked my daily circuit.

It felt like an Australian rendition of a partridge in a pear tree some mornings or rather a koala in a gum tree as I walked these beautiful tracks, collecting the list of wildlife that joined me.  But true to the experience, the perfect song accompaniment for this bush Christmas is not Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the Twelve Days of Christmas, but William Garnet James and John Wheeler’s more apt, Carol of the Birds:

Out on the plains the brolgas are dancing
Lifting their feet like war horses prancing
Up to the sun the woodlarks go winging
Faint in the dawn light echoes their singing
Orana!  Orana!  Orana to Christmas Day

Down where the tree ferns grow by the river
There where the waters sparkle and quiver
Deep in the gullies bell-birds are chiming
Softly and sweetly their lyric notes rhyming
Orana!  Orana!  Orana to Christmas Day

Friar birds sip the nectar of flowers
Currawongs chant in the wattle tree bowers
In the blue ranges lorikeets calling
Carols of bushbirds rising and falling
Orana!  Orana!  Orana to Christmas Day

Greetings of the season to you!

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Beyond Borders in Blois

A child of the city of churches, I grew up visiting Adelaide’s pre-eminent ‘Sunnyside Mall’ at first with my mother in our school holiday Myer excursions, then later of my own volition.

I remember the buzz and excitement (from some) when the multinational Borders Bookstore graced the Rundle Mall with its presence. Riding the tidal wave of coffee popularity, the business traded on the promise of being able to browse books whilst sipping on coffee, which, amongst other things, for some years made it a successful business. Its enormity for Adelaide could be measured by the fact that this bookshop had several levels and internal escalators. Up until then only large, long established retailers boasted this. Then ebooks and the internet seemed to make it impossible for such behemoth businesses to continue and as soon as it came, it was bought up by bigger (or more secure fish), then eventually disappeared.

When I say some were excited, I like to excuse myself, because I’m cynical about the perfect storm of a US multinational in a small local market with many rival booksellers, and I worried for the future of the small bookstores in Adelaide.

So you can imagine the pure joy, when on my 2013 trip to Blois, France, while pursuing the long line of my Chartier ancestors,  I happened across the answer to the coffee/book browsing dilemma in the form of Liber.Thés, a clever, quintessentially French play on words for a librairie/salon de thé (bookstore/tea salon).

The less intrepid tourist might not find this little gem, sited on the rive gauche (left bank) of the Loire, and away from the popular attractions like the Royal Château de Blois and for me the Archives départementales de la Sarthe.  But once on the other side, it is difficult to walk past it, as the atmosphere is both bookish and artistic – an altogether bohémien little nook. In weighing up whether to go in, I was reassured by 1. lots of customers, 2. lots of books and 3. a très cool look.

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I was searching for a feed, but I took the opportunity to search the shelves as well, and providently found a book which mentioned my ancestor’s name. (I had been shown this book earlier at the Château Royal de Blois when speaking to their collections manager about my ancestor).  It was a limited edition book, 16/155 – Deville, Les Horologers Blésois – a bargain (not), at €180. There are many other second-hand treasures here.

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I seated myself in the the room with all the books, and took the opportunity to have a flip through the large volume. I was accompanied by the industrious bibliophile/barista who whipped up gorgeous pumpkin soup with croutons and a salmon and avocado tartine.

Are two martinis too much? Well, I had them too – not usually a martini drinker, but then also not usually in Blois! Abstract art covers the walls, a very french mosaic the floor and the bar is covered with a mosaic even Giulio Cesare (the reputed founder of Blois in 100-44BC) would be proud of.

If I was ever interested in the multinational bookshop, I’m certainly beyond Borders now, and much happier sitting in a local icon, catering to antiquarian book-hunters and which will most likely be here forever.

 

liber.thes@free.fr – 21 avenue du Président Wilson 41100 Blois 0254781478

Via Tolosana: Epilogue – Know Thyself

La Commande – Pau – Toulouse – Paris – 896 kms in a BlaBlaCar 

“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply”  Leonard Cohen

A restless sleep, but I did dream. I wrote morning pages in bed this morning, because I could. I was up and going at 8am and M-H had laid out breakfast for us.  We ate while watching the Portuguese pilgrim depart, and M-H commented that this is how she usually spends her mornings: watching a stream of walkers exiting the little town.  It was so beautiful I was getting teary watching him disappear down the road. I feel so lucky coming back to such a lovely place to ease out of the way. I thought while having a bath the day before, you do need time for the way to leave you, just as you need time to leave the way. I was transitioning back into the road of my usual life. The terrain takes a turn for the more familiar, and then before you know it, you’re back on home soil. It is how it is meant to be.

The pilgrim in Oloron-Sainte-Marie park, Reiner, inspired and challenged me to always ask. To always be open. To always say yes. Marie-Helene thanked me for being open and saying yes to her offer.  She said she admired my courage in saying yes.  I assured her, it wasn’t a hard decision to make when she said she was living in La Commande.  I loved this place. It was such a gorgeous spot to come back to.

It was a slow morning, and at just past 11:00am, we left for Pau where I was to meet my ride back to Paris via Bla-Bla-Car.  Marie-H drove out of the town a different way to the one I’d walked in on, and I realised the little houses continued out quite a way along the road on this side, making the community seem bigger than I thought it had been.  We arrived in the small carpark in front of la Gare only about 20 minutes after leaving. I was still so impressed by M-H’s generosity in driving me. There was the funicular I love so much and the sound of the rushing river.

I met up with my ride, and it was a pretty uneventful return – a long 8 hour drive in a car back to Paris with a deux chevaux (Citroën 2CV) sighting.

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Getting to my hotel room, what greets me in the bathroom, but the universal bathroom decor of scallop shell to bring my pilgrimage to a close.

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The next day I took a bus through he ‘chunnel’ (Channel Tunnel) to London for a Huguenot Conference, also sighting another deux chevaux. My legs continued to feel for the road, they were tired and sore but I think they would have preferred to continue walking.

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Viola wrote to me – “I’m in Bilbao now, I’m travelling inside myself, it is hard and wonderful.” I knew exactly what she meant.  Travelling inside yourself is hard and wonderful, but as all the great philosophers agree, there is great wisdom in knowing thyself. What better way to have the time and the mental space to gather this wisdom than go for a very long walk.

After a week in London, I shot back over the channel to Semur-en-Auxios and Granville to visit two friends for another 10 days or so, before heading back to Paris to take a flight back to Australia.

On the last night of my epic via Tolosana sojourn, sitting in my room in the Hotel George Sand,  yes there is one (and it is great), about to repack my bags ready for the evening flight the next day, I was taking advantage of the super convenient wifi in my room (as opposed to the super inconvenient wifi I’d experienced along my walk), and what pops into my inbox:

Subject: Between Marciac and Maubourguet.

Yes, it was an email from Matthieu.

The End.

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Even back in the streets of Fitzroy, Melbourne, way- markers are not far away

Via Tolosana Day 46: As before, so after: a Marcel Pagnol ribbon.

Canfranc Estación back to France: a 56km bus ride via Col du Somport and tunnel

I wouldn’t normally have counted this day as part of my trip, but something so extraordinary occurred, that it has to be included for the fantastical day it was.

The 3 amigos were up around 7am and there was lots of faffing around, generating a lot of noise.  They left around 7:30am and I wished them “buen camino”. I got out of bed after that and packed slowly. I went downstairs and ate my pear and what I thought was going to be yoghurt, but just turned out to be set milk I think – room temperature as it had been in my room all night. I used the wifi for a bit and then set off.

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It was really cold outside in the shadow of the mountain. I walked past the restaurant I’d sat in the night before and realised they too had a pilgrim menu. The Office of Tourism was open today and I checked how the bus to Oloron-Sainte-Marie worked, and whether I could take the bus up to the Col du Somport as I had planned, or whether it wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay here much longer without walking, as it was frigid.

I walked across the road to have a closer look at the Estación Internacional de Canfranc.  What a grand building! Amazingly huge. Amazingly neglected. I took some photos and was then trying to decide where to park myself to wait for the 11:18am bus to Col du Somport.

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I found a bar/restaurant that looked good for petit dejeuner. I walked in and straight away saw a pilgrim face – I don’t know how it is that one can tell, but after 46 days you just can. I went to put my things down at a neighbouring table, but she kept looking my way and smiling, so I said,

“Êtes-vous un pèlerin?” (who knows how I knew she’d speak French)
“Oui”, she said.
“Parlez-vous français?” I asked.
Oui je suis française” she replied.
“Je suis australien. Enchanté!”

And I sat down with my new friend and we chatted until 11.00am about our experiences on the way.  Marie-Helene had walked from her home on the same route as I had, but had continued down the valley, through Jaca and on to Saragossa. There she’d felt it time to come home, so she came back to Canfranc to return to France under the mountain on the bus – as I was doing also.  We’d had many shared experiences. She’d walked the Camino Frances before. We spoke broken English/French while I consumed freshly squeezed OJ, a snail (the baked kind, not the garden variety) and a cup of coffee. Perfect!  She was feeling lonely without the company of pilgrims on the way, so she was extremely happy to meet with me and chat – it continued her chemin experience. Serendipity, or providence?

She asked where I would stay for the night, and I said I’d go back to the gite in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, where I’d stayed just a few days ago. I was wanting to see the church I’d missed (it is a good one apparently) and I also wanted another chance to see Matthieu again. She offered to have me stay at her house! WOW!  The amazing things keep happening. Trust. Ask and it shall be given … in the most unexpected ways.  Marie’s son was going be picking her up from the bus station and driving her back to her house. I said I’d love to stay with her, but where on the chemin did she live? She took my Miam Miam Dodo and turned to the La Commande page.  That beautiful village with the chanting in l’eglise, the stèle discoïdale in the church yard and the photography exhibit where I had my most enchanting visit is her town, and much to my amazement I would get to visit it again!

At 11.00am, I explained that I wanted to take the bus up to the Col, as I believed it would come back down and be the same one that would then go on to Oloron-Sainte-Marie.  She thought that was a good idea and decided to join me, so we trotted off to the bus stop together.  Eventually it did turn out to be the same bus she would’ve caught – the 11:51am.

Taking the bus up to Col du Somport, the road seemed a much more major one than I’d walked past the day before.  We passed a huge fortified building set up high on one of the hills , Coll de Ladrones Fort (Thieves Pass Fort) on the way up. The day was so clear, compared to the fogginess of the two previous days. I was glad I’d decided to take this risk of getting this bus to see the pass again.  The bus stopped up there for 10 minutes, and I dashed in to say hello/goodbye again to Nieves, at Albergue Aysa, Marie and I posed for photos with the mountains in the background and then we were back on the bus ready for our return to France.  How lovely to be up in the crisp air on top of the Somport Pass again.  That was a lovely idea to come back up. The bus moves so quickly compared to my legs. It was interesting to see where I’d walked the day before.  M-H had walked different paths down this valley, but I think we all walk a different path off the mountain.  We encountered the sheep again, this time crossing in front of the bus – it must have been about the same time as I’d got to this point yesterday. Herds of sheep crossing – you could set your watch to them.

Back down to Canfranc again and the day had got a lot brighter. Maybe I’d have to revise my first impressions of this town.   A wedding seemed to be taking place, it was Saturday after all, and there were people walking the streets dressed up in their Sunday best. I was seeing a different side to this town now.

Travelling out the other side of the town, it wasn’t long before we were on the ramp for the tunnel.  Yes, the Somport Tunnel was right there, just behind the albergue where I’d slept last night. I didn’t realise it was so very close.   It was a quick subterranean shuttle. Before we knew it we were in Urdos, then Borce, then Accous, Bedous and Sarrance … and back in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It was strange and puzzling at the same time trying to picture where I walked from the window of the bus. The hills we travelled past looked familiar, but the track is well-camouflaged. M-H had walked here a lot in her life. She had always lived close to the mountains.

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The familiar train station greeted me when we got to Oloron-Sainte-Marie and we waited a short while for her son to collect us. He and his girlfriend drove us home. They had a coffee when we arrived, but left soon afterwards.

M-H encouraged me to take a long bath.  It took no convincing. A bath is really a fantastic way to let the road slowly leave you. I had a long soak and washed my hair. How special to be hosted by someone who understands exactly what you are going through (at the same time they are going through it), and lovingly provides a home in which to relax. I felt extremely blessed and grateful.

She asked me later in the day, after we’d washed, done washing and eaten, whether I’d ever thought I might be back here.  I said to her that nothing I could have dreamed would have suggested I’d come back here on this trip. Although I did explain to her that I’d taken a photo of the house in the fields and also the restaurant with a wistful thought I could live here.  After all, you can see the Pyrenees from here.

M-H’s house is literally across the intersection from the first turn the route takes out of the little hamlet. She knows the woman who opens/closes the church and is in charge of the beautiful music playing there – she minded her cat while she was away.  Her neighbours across the way greeted her with eggs and massive tomatoes. Their daughter lives in Bordeaux and was visiting.  The husband is still farming, in his 90s. Absolutely amazing to see him drive back to the house on his tractor while we were talking outside at one stage.

When M-H had dinner on the boil, we went to spend some time in the church. Choirs singing Hallelujah greeted us in the church as we sat still, the sun streaming through the circular window at the back. We went next door to see if there were any pilgrims and to say hello and found four guys – three French and one Portugese.  They looked to be having a cool time but with a different mood to when Anne, Marion and I were there – one guy had walked all the way from Kiev – that’s serious: extreme pilgrimage.

We walked to Josette, the cat minder’s house to say hello and thank her.  Her sister had died in the week while M-H was away, which was really sad. It was clear from our short visit that she was a dynamo  – a great older woman.  We retrieved some of the peaches that had fallen from her tree and did the circuit route back to M-H’s place, past the Vendre Restaurant/Hotel.  For Sale for a number of years apparently.

M-H had gathered a few things from the garden and it was yum.  Rice, tomato and capsicum. Perfect. Peaches for dessert.  I booked a Bla-Bla Car after signing up for this cool scheme (that Francois had mentioned back in Morlaas).  We chatted for ages about the road, the way, life. What lessons we’d taken:

Live in the now (not the past or the future).

Go your own way.

Be still.

Ask always.

Love … just love.  Love is the answer to all your questions.

After retiring upstairs to my bedroom, I noticed a small stack of books on the shelf above my bed.  They were familiarly bound books as only the French do – with plain white covers. Classic.  And there, to my wonder, I saw the two I’d referred to in Day 6, La Gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory) and Le Château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle) sitting atop many others. They are very beautiful stories and very familiar to me (I have the DVDs at home on my shelf), and it felt like the gift of this day was tied with a Marcel Pagnol ribbon, bringing me full circle from all those days ago, climbing out of Montpelier with Jacques. History really does double back on itself, to show you just how far you have come.

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Climbing into a real bed at 9:30pm, snuggling under a fluffy doona in the country house of a warm and generous French pilgrim, I decided I was as close to home as I could be.

Via Tolosana Day 45: The Purple Patch

Col du Somport to Canfranc-Estación – 6.7kms

Today was the first day for several weeks that I’ve slept in. My sleep was unsettled again during the night, but I rested a little. Actually I was cold, and that never bodes well for a good sleep.  I got up, dressed, went upstairs for brekky at 7:30am – maybe not what some may call a sleep in! Benjamin, Jose and the other guy weren’t far behind me.  Nieves was up and doing her English homework which I had a look at, but decided it was far too hard for me, and told her she was doing extremely well to even be tackling it.

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After breakfast, one by one the pilgrims said goodbye. Jose, then Benjamin and the other guy.  I wanted to do some more writing of my journal and then leave. At about 10am, the dogs were howling with a huge thunderstorm outside and I was delayed.  I felt relatively safe in staying as it was only a short downhill walk today to Canfranc.  I caught up with emails, and chatted on the internet with friends. It was actually a perfect start to the day.  The rain eased gradually, and then the fog lifted and I realised I needed to leave. It took me only a few minutes to pack – I’d already left my mostly full pack upstairs in the entrance hall.

Nieves gave me a gorgeous pin as a souvenir. I left, jacket on, and walked out into the fog. The path was all purple today and once again, wet.  The marker said 858kms to Santiago, but I was glad I was only going 6kms.  Before long I left Aysa to disappear into the fog and I was walking over purple rocks with iridescent green moss – it was beautiful.  In-between fir trees it felt like classic Europe.  Still little crocuses appeared on the ground as they had yesterday, but it definitely felt like a different environment to the valley I’d walked up.  I couldn’t hear it from the chalet, but in the valley below was the raging river, Rio Aragón. It gives it’s name to the next stage of this walk to Puente La Reina.  There was a big area that looked like the product of a landslide – but maybe it had been constructed to make a good ski run.

It was a very narrow path down to the Hôpital de Sainte Christine.  I spent a little time reading the information boards and then left and emerged onto the roadway which was flanked by snow sticks to mark where the edge was when it was covered with snow I presumed.

I then turned left up a dirt path, then onto a small bitumen roadway and voilà! I was walking head-on into a sheep orchestra again – it was like a stampede and included one solitary black sheep.  Very cute and very funny they were.

The road into Spain was filled with many amazing views and landslips.  There were a trio of older pilgrims who had called in to Aysa for a Col du Somport tampon just as I was considering leaving. They’d arrived by bus to start walking from there. I think many pilgrims come in for the stamps at Aysa – the beginning of their Santiago trek. I kept following the signs, although many times it felt like I was on the wrong path because I saw the trio on the other road in the distance.   More beautiful views, cute paths and staircases.  New way markers greeted me – big, clumsy yellow ones and the same red and white balisages I’d grown very accustomed to.  I would still not even see a half of the mountains though for the fog cover. I thought about it as I descended. Sometimes we just have to be content knowing that something is there, despite not being able to see it.  I came across a paddock of horses, just past a giant purple landslide. Sometimes the little walking people on the signs didn’t point the right way.

First cattle grid crossed in 45 days. More forests and purple dirt.  Loads of mushrooms under pine trees.  A little hut like a hobbit house. A purple river made from storm water.  Today I found the Camino crosses the middle of paddocks – a foretaste of what is to come perhaps – I think I only crossed one middle of a paddock in France.  Biggest pile of rocks so far.

Near the town, I came upon the 3 amigos on the main-ish road – all paths lead to Canfranc Estación.

After a little more than 1 1/2 hours of ambling, I was approaching the town. The old Somport rail tunnel entrance on the outskirts of town was gorgeous. Mary is once again everywhere – she made it to Spain too, and watches everything here as well.  Plaza Aragón – conjures up my images of medieval times. I was seeing lots of accommodation options, but I thought I’d continue to find the albergue. I passed the station and saw that it really is awesome. Matthieu was right, and I was glad I took his advice to come here.  It is apparently the 3rd largest station building in Europe. I’ll go tomorrow morning and get more photos of it, sans selfie stick!

The town has a slightly weird feeling, maybe even a Twin Peaks feeling.  Like deserted skiing towns everywhere I suppose, deeply tucked between huge mountains, Los Arañones and Las Iserias (I think judging from my map) it is quite dim, especially with foggy cloud cover.  I found a place to eat lunch – they had a pilgrim plat for 8.50Euros. The primo would’ve been sufficient – a whole big plate of pasta.  Then I had to have chips and chicken fillets – very thin, like I’d had for dinner last night.  I couldn’t eat it all and I think they thought I was a bit strange.  The TV was blaring to keep the staff and the customers entertained, although there was just me and another couple still eating lunch. You know you’re in Europe when you’re sitting in a restaurant and the TV ads show a weekly collection of books to buy – about great philosophers! Australia – we wouldn’t want to be bothered by the inconvenient truth that there might be other ways to handle our problems. It felt strange that I couldn’t speak any Spanish, and I think it affected my impressions of the place, as the locals certainly didn’t speak any English. Hmmm.  I really let go of my safety blanket by walking into Spain.  It took me back to my early French experiences where I felt like a bumbling idiot – even more so than I still do.  It made me realise just how far my language comprehension and speaking had come and I was missing being able to at least start a conversation with shop keepers and wait staff. Spanish isn’t on my list at this stage, so it will only be a short foray into this country, as I don’t like travelling to countries where I don’t at least want to learn the basics.  A sad indictment on me I’m sure, but I can’t change what I feel is right at the time. After my meal, I set off to try to find the albergue that was the cheapest on my list.

Continuing to the other end of the town, I asked directions and found the Albergue Juvenil de Canfranc that looked open (there was smoke coming from the chimney), but all shut up.  I asked two women out in the street how I might get in. One of whom turned out to be the librarian, of course! I love librarians :)!  The library was across the road. Silencio, bibliotheca. What greets me on the library door at the top of a flight of stairs, but a gigantic poster of mushroom species. This made me smile. After all this time, I can finally find out the species I’d been seeing for all this time. The library was a cute little one-roomed number and the librarian said I could wait while she phoned the host. They said they’d come and open up shortly.   The holdings amused me – I wondered whether Paula got in Cannibus magazine for her Rockdale library? It was not long before I was able to go across the carpark and get settled.

The albergue is modern with a fireplace/common room/dining room downstairs and a couple of lounge chairs around the edge the room. There was another school group/youth group of people who would be fed dinner, but dinner wasn’t provided for pilgrims on this day. Rooms are on the 2nd floor under the sloping roofline, so I bumped my head on this a few times.  I was exhausted by my ‘mini-walk’ and my big 3pm lunch, so I lay down for a while.  Later I went to access wifi downstairs. Later still, I walked up the road to the little supermarket and got yoghurt and pears for breakfast.  Next door I had the thickest and yummiest hot chocolate I’ve had in my life at the Cafetería Universo while catching up with the day’s journalling. As I sat there, the restaurant got more and more packed. By 9.15pm, when I left, it was really ticking over.

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my albergue

At 9:30 I walked back and to bed. The Spanish trio were in bed already and hopefully I didn’t wake them.