Via Podiensis: The first week is for the body

I read in the book, Paris to the Pyrenees, that it is said the first week of a long walk is for the body, the second, the mind and rest for the spirit. Well I have spent the first week of my walk sacrificing my body to the mountains of Saone-et-Loire, Loire and Rhine regions of France.

What I thought would be rolling hills, turned out to be high grade hiking trails but not nearly so well maintained. I’ve scaled a 1,000m mountain and counted more passes than I care to list. I’ve walked too many kilometres each day (35kms one day) and at the wrong times (leaving in the afternoon and arriving at 7pm or on one occasion 9pm). I’ve not drunk enough water. I’ve stubbornly followed GR waymarkers that clearly weren’t mine to follow. I have been hopelessly lost, wailing to the creatures of the forest in despair.

So what have I learned from all this?

Don’t begin in the middle

I mistakenly thought that I knew what the deal was with this walking thing. I’d finished the 800 km Via Tolosana in 2015, how different could it be? I had some recommended itineraries, and decided to compact the first 3 days of walking into 2 – meaning very long days of walking. Maybe this would have worked in the middle of my trip when I was over jet lag, and my body was accustomed to the road, but not in the first days.

You rarely remember the first parts of a long walk, the aching muscles, the blisters, the results of acclimatising to daily long walks with a backpack. Instead you remember he exhilaration and sense of accomplishment of getting so far and not quitting then the feeling that you could walk on forever.

It is important to start from where you’re at with the terrain that presents itself – for me on the GR765, this should’ve seen me do no more than 15km days for at least the first three days and get up to 20kms gradually.

Always begin at the beginning, as a novice and be gentle with yourself and relax expectations.

Being lost is frustrating, but mostly because at some point you were wrong.

It is deeply humbling to realise that the reason you are lost is because you weren’t paying attention, didn’t see the signs, or didn’t check your map – maybe all three. Even more frustrating is when there are multiple routes indicated by the same signs, and you’re following blindly for many kilometres and assuming they are pointing you in the right direction, but they’re not. If something feels like the wrong way, check! The route straight up for a kilometre out of a town that is not described in your guide book, is probably the wrong one. And girls on horses shouldn’t be trusted! They might not know the way you need to go. Putting your trust in signs is important, but keeping a healthy skepticism is vital. The route between Cluny and Le Puy has multiple GR routes crossing. Pay attention always.

From lost moments come unexpected surprises

After getting hopelessly lost in the forest on one day, I reasoned that I should just keep walking as eventually I’d find a main road from which to get my bearings. The unhelpful voice in my head continued, “What if you’ve walked all this way in the opposite direction to where you need to go and have wasted all this time?” (We were now talking hours of the wrong route). This was a possibility but when I did finally reach a main road, I found to my great surprise, that I’d cut off several small towns and was further along the day’s journey than expected. How amazing. It was confirmation that no effort is wasted.

These lessons all came at a toll on my body. A nasty blister on my left foot; two un-trimmed toenails digging into their neighbour toes; stretched ligaments on the side and back of my right knee; and a swollen right leg. But maybe they are just symptoms of the combination of the physical terrain and one’s state of mind. Once the body has been sacrificed, as the saying goes, maybe I’m now set to lose my mind!

Via Tolosana: The longwalker’s packing list

I have been practice-packing for months. It can only mean one thing – my next long walk in France is long overdue.  I’ve booked it and July approaches. In preparation I have reviewed my Via Tolosana packing list, and have come up with a list of items I’m happy with for today. It might change tomorrow, and my inclination always seems to be to add more, rather than subtract. The just-in-case syndrome.

I’ve read somewhere, that you can walk with only one spare change of clothes, and that all the small things, first aid kits etc and things you don’t absolutely use every day, can be bought if you need them. I agree with this for clothes, but for first aid, I think it is handy to have it with you. I attempt to keep my packing to what for me are (mostly) the bare essentials. Whilst this is a long list, many things don’t take up much room.

Ideally, you don’t want anything in your pack that you’re not using every day. But on the other hand, if you’re walking for 60 days, you may want to go out to dinner in a dress one night instead of your daggy walking clothes. So I compromise with finding the lightest/most compact version of anything I won’t use every day ie. an umbrella.

If you find you have to take everything out to re-pack every morning, it is actually a good thing, because it means you’re using everything in your pack.

Pack/Accessories

  • Backpack – North Face Terra 30 litre (purchased in 2008)
  • Pack cover (came with the pack)
  • St Jacques shell
  • Walking sticks (I didn’t use these, however the going is easier with them – other people loaned me theirs to try out)
  • Aluminium clips
  • Plastic bags (or pack liner or large zip-lock bags – for the 2-3 days you may walk in heavy rain, plastic bags are plenty – especially if you have a pack cover – which I’d highly recommend)
  • Waterproof bags (for technology/passport/phone) – Kathmandu
  • Water bottles (Take a drink bottle plus buy 1.5 litre plastic one when you’re there)
  • Swiss Army knife (make sure you pack it in the bag that gets put under the plane otherwise it will be confiscated)
  • Money belt (It can come in handy on planes and trains and where you feel security is not great, but mostly I didn’t need it along the way)
  • Compass (didn’t use it but it may be useful one day)
  • Compact umbrella (IsoToner make tiny ones that weigh only 250g)

Although my pack is heavy (even without anything in it), I really like it for its compact design and comfort. All straps are adjustable, and there are great outside zipped and open pockets to store things for easy access.  I love the top ‘lid’ which was great for carrying the day’s quiche or flat peach and it has a zipped section inside, so I could keep my pocket-knife and small things like salt/pepper and the compass in case. You won’t walk using an umbrella, but I found when looking around towns at the end of a day of walking, it is very uncomfortable walking around in the rain – handy to have a tiny umbrella.

Shoes

  • Hiking boots – Salamon
  • After hours light sandals (I couldn’t successfully walk on cobblestones in flip-flops) – Teva
  • Flip-flops (for shower) – Havianas

Clothes

  • 1 waterproof jacket – Kathmandu
  • 1 inner jacket shell/lightweight polo fleece – Kathmandu
  • 2 t shirts – Bonds
  • 2 long sleeve t-shirts – Bonds
  • 2 pairs long pants/shorts (depending what you are comfortable in) – Kathmandu
  • 3 bras
  • 3 pairs underpants
  • 2 pairs socks (thick Wool/synthetic blend hiking socks)
  • 1 dress (light-weight and compact for evenings)
  • 1 pair leggings
  • Pyjamas
  • Hat
  • Lightweight shawl
  • Bathers/swimmers/togs – whatever you call ’em. Yes there are some swimming pools.
Washing/Sleeping
  • Sleeping sheet
  • Quick dry towel
  • Stretchy clothes line
  • 5 pegs
  • Eye/sleep mask
  • Ear plugs (if you need them)

If you stay mostly in pilgrim accommodation – gites or Chambre d’hotes, pillows and blankets are mostly provided, so I found carrying a sleeping bag was unnecessary, and it freed up a lot of space when I posted it home.

Paper/Technology
  • Journal
  • Morning pages (A4 notebooks if you’re a writer)
  • Miam miam dodo (Food and Accommodation guide)
  • Phone (and charger & extra battery)
  • Electrical adapter
  • Pencil case – small round-blade scissors, small glue stick, pens for journalling
  • Purse
  • Passport/plane ticket
  • Pilgrim credential
  • French phrasebook

Being a writer, I pack paper, and it weighs a lot. But this is the price I pay for being able to write about my trip in great detail while I’m going, and I’m not about to give it up. Same goes for scissors and glue stick. I stick all my tickets etc into my journal as I go, and also prepare town maps and information about the route before I leave and stick it into my journal as I get to each place. It makes a beautiful record of the trip and I figure I’ll be wanting to remember my trips when I’m 90 and in a nursing home.

Encouraged by Alissa Duke and her gorgeous sketches, this time I’m going to try water-colour sketching – more to carry, but more memories!

Toiletries/First Aid

The other area I don’t economise on is toiletries.  I like carrying lotions and potions in the smallest sizes available, because at the end of long day of walking, after I’ve showered, I like to have a little tube of peppermint foot balm at my disposal or some arnica creme to massage my legs. OK, I might only use the paw-paw ointment once or twice, but I’d rather have it than not. A little block of ‘friction block’ instead of lots of bandaids for feet is a must that was loaned to me by my friend Isabel. I only used it once, but it worked by stopping a blister coming, and I was so glad I had it.

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I also carried a little portion of Salvital last time, and I was so glad I did on the hot days.

  • Soap (in a mesh bag you can peg to the washing line to dry overnight. Wash yourself and your clothes with it)
  • Shampoo
  • Toothbrush/paste
  • Baume de St Bernard (muscle liniment)
  • PawPaw creme (these come in mini red containers)
  • Jojoba oil (JoJoba make mini travel sized bottles)
  • moisturiser/aloe vera (mini version)
  • Sunscreen (Avene make a cute-sized tube)
  • Nivea Lip balm
  • First aid kit (small)
  • Bandaid – or any other ‘friction block’ blister stopper – excellent (so much better than any sticking plasters and it really works, but difficult to find in Australia)
  • Large safety pins
  • Small amount of real wool – excellent for shoving between your toes to prevent blisters
  • Salvital
  • Tampons/pads – can’t quite bring myself to go on the pill just to walk, but it would certainly make it easier from a packing perspective
  • Toilet paper – wind your own without the cardboard tube

What not to take

  • Sleeping bag (I found I didn’t use it on the Via Tolosana – may yet be proved wrong this time)
  • SLR camera (still deciding on this) and charger
  • Heavy sandals – don’t take Keens unless you’re walking in them (they’re too heavy to carry for after hours wear)
  • iPad (next time I won’t try to blog while on the trip)

Other useful notes

Space for food

  • Leave enough space in your backpack to pack the food you need each day. Sometimes you might have to stock up for over 24 hours worth on the Via Tolosana as there are not always epiceries/boulangeries in the smaller towns. Ask about the provisions of food in the towns ahead from Office de Tourisme/hostelliers you stay with.  Other pilgrims are a also a good source of info about this. Miam Miam Dodo is a good resource, but may not be up-to-date or accurate.

Use space on the outside of your pack

  • Use large safety pins to dry your socks on the outside of your pack if they don’t dry overnight.
  • Buy aluminium clips to clip drink bottles and other extras to the outside of your pack
  • I carried two posters in a post-pack carton strapped on the outside of my pack for the last 6 days – not recommended, but it is possible for those must-have souvenirs.
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After the rain

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Pack cover

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All the necessary – chocolate, coquille shell and Miam Miam Dodo guide

 

 

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St Jacques coquille shell. Pin socks to pack if they don’t dry overnight. Drink bottle attached with clip

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Beech walking stick, hat and post-pack tube with plastic bag

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Swiss army knife

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Rest break

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Acoustic Motorbikes or Le Tour de France

As you know, I will venture to France again for more walking soon, and while I’m at it, another marathon effort will be undertaken by lots of crazy cyclists in the feat known as the Tour de France.

Someone asked me this week whether my route will take me anywhere near the race, so I checked. It doesn’t, thankfully.  Finding accommodation would be mission impossible if the Tour went even close to my route.  Instead, I’ll just be competing with thousands of holidaying French walkers.

It was such a treat to be able to see again the lush, yet brutal, Triplets of Belleville, at the Adelaide Festival in March 2018, with Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville conducted by Benoît Charest live on stage. I’m hoping this year’s tour entrants don’t have the same kind of family background, training regime or become the victims of gangster kidnappers. It seems this is as close to the T de F as I’ll get for 2018.

However, the route goes to several places I have visited on my many travels, and I thought it might be nice to re-visit my diaries and provide some guidance to Tour entrants about the must-see things to do (after their brief and completely non-exhausting daily rides – ha ha)!

Stage 3, July 9: Cholet – Cholet (TTT), 35km

Should there be any tour entrants with Huguenot ancestry, I can thoroughly recommend the Le Musée de La France Protestante De L’Ouest, in the middle of nowhere (like Cholet, incidentally and near to it).  I can also highly recommend the train and two buses it takes to get there from Angers. My friend Seb called it ‘deep France’. The connections will be perfect – a train, bus then if you’re lucky like me, you’ll also get a lift from a helpful stranger, when you thought you were going to walk to the chateau. While in nearby Angers, make sure you visit the beautiful Apocalypse tapestry.

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Stage 7, July 13: Fougères – Chartres, 231km

Chartres cathedral has to be visited because it holds the ancient labyrinth, on which the Sydney Labyrinth in Centennial Park is modelled and which I wrote about here on my way to my last walk.  So if the riders are still able to walk, and the design is not covered by chairs (which it sometimes may be if you visit at the wrong time), then a lap through it would probably put competitive minds at ease or make them dizzy, depending. Or it could be considered a warm-down. Devotees used to do it on their knees – that’s also an option after an invigorating ride of 231kms.

 

Stage 8, July 14: Dreux – Amiens Métropole, 181km

Whilst I’ve been to Amiens, I have not visited the notable cathedral there (gothic and UNESCO listed), but just saw it in transit on my way to visit Villers-Brettoneux to visit the ancestors commemorated in the famous Australian memorial park there.  The Richards brothers both got their names on that list for lives they gave for God, King and country.  The memorial is a big drawcard for Australian WW1 tourists these days and ANZAC day services are held there and our armed forces bands play. My advice, don’t go in April.

Rest day, July 16: Annecy

One year, I did French lessons at Alliance Francaise, and one night we spent the whole lesson learning about directions in a little town called Annecy.  They always like to make the exercises practical, so by the end, we all pretty much knew our way around this cute town in the mountains near the Swiss border.

One of the wonderful benefits I had of hosting many Couchsurfers, was making friends who I have visited on my French trips.  One such lovely visitor was Celine, and I was thrilled when I was going to meet a person who came from that charming town. I visited her at Christmas time and she put me up for a few days and introduced me to the wonders of this pristine town.  We drove up to get the view of the lake from above, where snow had fallen – only one of the few times I’ve seen snow.  The swans on the lake, the museum/chateau and a traditional fondue dinner in wooden-chalet-type restaurant are all lovely memories.  It is great the riders get to rest in Annecy – it is worth soaking up.

 

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Rest day, July 23: Carcassonne

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Carcassonne – a place I had built up so many idealised versions of, only to find when I got there on my 2015 trip, that it made me feel a little sick.  I don’t know whether it was the commercialisation, the difficult accommodation experience I had, being there on THE busiest national monument day of the year, Assumption, or a past life as a Cathar nun, but it disturbed me.  The ancient (but heavily re-built) medieval cite is spectacular and would look right at home in the Game of Thrones, but playing the boardgame is as close as I want to get until I walk the GR78 Voie du Piémont.  I don’t know how much rest the pedallers will get, I just found the whole thing unsettling.

 

Stage 18, July 26: Trie-sur-Baïse – Pau, 172km

Pau is a most interesting city.  With a balustraded promenade that overlooks the Pyrenees, which on a humid day, look hazy in the distance. There is a tangle of subterranean roadways that make you feel like you’re in an Escher  picture. It is full of history – being the place Henry IV was born. I didn’t get to see it, but would have liked to visit the Chateau. What I did see was one of my favourite things on wheels, a funicular – very short, very steep, and straight to the point – breakfast. It is a a great entrance to the next town on the list, just a short trip away by train. I passed through Pau three times on my Via Tolosana adventure – here, here and here. Jemais deux sans trois. Never two without three.

 

Stage 19, July 27: Lourdes – Laruns, 200km

I wonder whether any contestants will take the healing waters in St Bernadette’s town? Maybe there will be masses in their honour.  There will certainly be a premium on accommodation – it is difficult enough when there are just pilgrims, but add in the entourage of en velo support crews, and the deep peace of the place will likely be thrown into chaos. Lourdes is second in tourist popularity only to Paris, quite a Mecca – excuse the mixed religious metaphor. I also wrote about Lourdes during my Via Tolosana adventure and reviewed the film here.

 

Stage 21, July 29: Houilles – Paris Champs Elysées, 115km

I’m a bit of a strange Paris tourist – I’ve not spent any time at the Arc de Triomphe or much on the Champs Elysees, although I have walked along parts thereof once or twice. Probably the closest I’ve got to the feeling of being on it was singing Joe Dessin’s version at French classes at Le Café Flo. Does that count? Probably not.

So I’ll leave you with a sound-track for your consumption of le Tour de Fromage, the best arm-chair drone/helicopter tourism you will ever experience courtesy of Luka BloomThe Acoustic Motorbike.

Pedal on.

And I’ve never known why they’re called pelotons, not velotons. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

Enjoy the trip!

Another long walk in France

You may remember last time I walked in France, I eventually blogged my 46 days. Well this time, I’m only going to hold myself to 100 words a day plus a photo … on Instagram. If you want to walk with me – head on over.

bronwhy2018 on Instagram

I’ve had several conversations with people in the last few weeks about being outside, and what draws me to this type of walking. There is a beautiful freedom and ironically, a sense of security in being outdoors, and I think Rebecca Solnit captures it with her words:

“Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

This idea also dovetails well with some material our philosophy group is working through at the moment,

“The whole world is pervaded by me yet my form is not seen”

It is worth pondering where our limits lie, and to also acknowledge that the whole world lives in us. William Blake’s words are brought to mind,

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I’ve added to my original post – it just keeps getting longer … where do your limits lie?

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