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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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. – 21 avenue du Président Wilson 41100 Blois 0254781478

Via Tolosana Day 14: … gathers no moss

Fagairolles – Murat-sur-Vèbre 10kms

Awoke at 5.38, fresh from a nice dream about a bearded Netherlander.  That was altogether too early to get up, so I went back to sleep until 7.30am.  That’s more like it!  I wrote my pages and ate cold packet risotto because there was no power. Cold was actually quite good.  I need to buy toothpaste.  I tidied my belongings, pinned my still-cold socks to the backpack with my hat and went outside. The niggling irritation on my heel, ripe for a blister, wasn’t going to go away. I applied some of Isabelle’s Bandaid anti-blister magic.  (It seemed to work, because after 11am I noticed my heel was still OK).  I tried texting the woman who had met me yesterday to tell her about the power, but it didn’t work.

Gite in Fagairolles

Leaving Fagairolles

Ominous silver cloudy sky with sun emerging

Clouds leaving Fagairolees

It was a little strange being in a place out of the way from the route – it almost felt like no-one would find me there.  Maybe that’s what I wanted.  Being alone in my Australian life, I’d made solo living an art form.  I felt like I had come away ready to learn about relationships and compromise. It turned out it was more than that.  I’d taken the first offer of companionship that had come along, just to have company but there was so much compromise, I was totally lost in the equation. Again.  I wasn’t making any time for me.  How often does this happen.  I lose control of my life, for others, and then get angry that ‘they’ve taken my liberty away’, when actually I made the choice not to be free.  I had learned so much in the past few days, that I was happy with the solitude – really happy with it. Despite being a little incognito, it was also reassuring to be joining the GR653 again, although I didn’t see any other walkers on my short jaunt to Murat-sur-Vèbre.

I decided to take the road route, D53 back to the carrefour (crossroad) and I was treated with hedgerows along one side of the road, and open paddocks on the other.  More cows. In the distance more wind turbines. Blackberries – how could I resist when the branch was thrust into my path, and general direction? And more holly. Flies. It was still cloudy and I got rained on a little. A little further along the road, there was a small but poignant memorial to those who had lost their lives in a battle on 23rd August, 1944.  Only 14 days from today’s date. It was hard to imagine the surrounding fields being the site of such carnage and bloodshed – du Ponts de la Mouline.  The information board was graphic in its depiction of troop movements. I’m glad I stopped.

Wind turbines on the horizon

Les Éoliens

Blackberries encroaching the road verge

Blackberries poking themselves in my general direction

Information board about du Pont de la Mouline battle, 1944

du Pont de la Mouline battle, 23rd August 1944, last century

Ginestet sign with the Occitan/Cathar cross

Ginestet sign and Occitan cross – also the Cathar cross

Back into Ginestat for the second time and I find that it is another small hamlet, like Fagairolles only with denser, greener trees. With the moisture, comes moss – it was a theme today. This rolling stone might not be gathering any moss, but she’s certainly seeing lots of it. As I walked, I started to hear the sounds of logging, chainsaws up ahead, and behind me at the intersection, two big logging trucks thundering past.  I could smell the chopped pine wood even from several hundred metres up the valley.  As I climbed higher, I left the workers, for denser forest, and less sealed tracks.  As I did, I was hurrying from one piece of shade from rain to the next, a little as I had done the day before with the sun.  I heard lumberjack voices in the distance shouting instructions to each other. Is ‘lumberjack‘ a funny word, or is it just the connotation it has when you know this song?

Mossy huge beech tree, queen of the forest

Ancient beech tree – queen of the forest avec moss

Forest and road

Forest trees and road

I could have put my pack cover on, but couldn’t be bothered. I passed this strange adventure playground that although looked disused, could have been a fantastic team-bonding site if it didn’t look so post-apocalyptic. I kept walking and entered a really dark, sticky and humid forest of what I was later to work out, were beech trees. The air was still, the trees began sparsely and small at first, but gradually thickened and grew in stature.  The darkness contrasted with the iridescence of the light green leaves gave an other-worldly feeling.  Now I really felt like I was in a Robin Hood episode.  Pine branches unlike I’d seen so far also appeared.  I crossed a creek as the path hair-pinned.  As I ascended up the other side of the creek, the sun began to shine brighter into the canopy. A dappled light shone on my path which was made up of months of leaf litter, making my walk the most soft under foot in my 14 days. Mossy rocks and mossy trees were everywhere.  I switched back a number of times before reaching the top of the hill, the light had grown, and there was also a light breeze.  I’d worn short sleeves today, not expecting much sun. The breeze was fresh on my skin.  The sweat continues but now it cools me. Then up and up towards the more light at the end of the tunnel. I was glad at the top to see a sign forbidding wheeled vehicles of any kind.  I was happy this pristine forest would intended for preservation.  This place was magical. I don’t want to walk away from it, there is something extremely special about it.  Not in a thinking way, I can feel it. I feel calm and safe.  Almost like answered prayer, as I leave it on the crest of the hill, I realise in 50 metres, but wait, there’s more! The track plunged into darkness again, and I am in another beech forest.

Beech forest trail

In a scene from Robin Hood – beech forest

Wide fanned pine branches

Unfamiliar pine branches

Dappled light on beech saplings

Sun-shiny day

Ancient stone walls and beech trees

Ancient stone wall and beech

I hear distant planes overhead. Tall trees, then small ones and I breathe in this beautiful, moist, fresh air.  I follow the Routes des Saints as it coincides with the GR643.  Mossy walls appear in this next part of the forest, a remainder of an ancient time. Red/brown leaves under my feet are slippery from all of the rain.  Bellamy – more inappropriate 80s comedy comes to mind.  I notice a leaf pre-empting autumn – even nature has it’s trailblazers.  There are many rock piles today.

'Bellamy' on a large plastic lid handing on a string fence


Nature's trail blazer - an autumn leaf in summer

Outlier – autumn leaf in summer

Mossy rock with stones piled into pyramid

Rock pile and moss rock

Suddenly the forest is behind me and I have rejoined a farming community.  Wide open fields of crops and more cows.  I see wheat for the first time.

Profile of a pile of sawn logs

Log profile

Still it threatens to rain.  More blackberries, this time with spent honey suckle. I can’t pick the little trumpet flowers, pick the little green bud off the end and pull the stamen out to suck the sweet nectar, they’re all spent.  I am reminded that I’m not far from logging as I enter little Les Senausses.  Yet another quiet hamlet with many town folk outside for some reason – like the whole town. They seem to live a very close existence. I pass a magnificent vegetable garden plot of leeks, strawberries, pumpkin which shows what you can have when you devote time to tending the earth.

Large vegetable garden in back yard

Magnificent garden

I say bonjour a number of times to the people I pass and it is a real contrast to Fagairolles where I only met my hostess and a guy out with his boy on his bike in the afternoon. Some folk end up passing me in their cars on their short drive to Murat.  Just outside, there are more cows with bells – I need more cow bell!  A screeching bird. A Kate Bush pigeon coo-ing, and the constant sound of bees buzzing high in the trees.  More blackberries.

The verge of fresh and old bitumen

The verge

Man on bitumen laying truck

The workers of the world

Part way along the road I came across workers patching the road. It is still misty, and it blows over the road. A field of wheat. Small country road. A big pile of shit. Just at the edge of Les Senausses the saint trail turns left. I continue to Murat – now not much further.

A field of wheat stalks


I turn left at the next junction and walk again on the D922, and the right side has a shoulder, so I take it. La Poste passes me, and the road is quite busy with motorbikes, cars and trucks. There are big lavender bushes on the outskirts. I never saw lavender in Provence, so this was a nice change, and the perfume was gorgeous.

Lavender bushes by the side of the road

Provincial lavender

I continue into Murat and find the supermarket. It is 12pm, so I expect everything will be closed soon, but I just make it in to buy a peach.  I then go to the Mairie and pay my 6.50 euros for my bed for the night.  No, not chambre (room), lit(bed) – as it will always just be a bed in a dorm for that price.  I was to walk back out the council office, then to the left, up some stairs, up the hill, then down under a building.  I found it, up near the community camping ground.  Pelerin accommodation: basic and cheap. Perfect.

Pilgrim accommodation downstairs

Gite pelerins

I am so early that the cleaner is still there. I drop my pack and eat my peach. I close the windows for her as she asked, the floor still a bit wet from the mop.  The dorm is L-shaped and underground. It has a little chill to it.  You enter through the kitchen with a beige macaron tablecloth on the table, and it seems you have everything you need. The laundry is next door, as are the toilets and showers. Showers are reached by taking the key behind the door to unlock the door next to the toilets.

Tablecloth with macarons printed on it


I go to find lunch, wandering past the ATM – yay, there is instant cash, and it all comes spitting out at me. Thank God!  I found the Office de Tourisme just next door which I’ll return to at 3pm.  I walked up and back along the main street checking lunch options.  I was trying to decide if I’d have a later start the next morning to catch this nice looking Boulangerie, but decided I’d wait.  The owner came along, and even though it had closed for lunch, he asked me if I wanted anything.  How great is that!  I’d been thinking the sandwich, biscuit and boisson option looked good for 4.50 euros, so that’s what I got.  He went in through the garage and got my lunch for me. What a kind man. I must really look like a pilgrim!

I walked back along the main drag to where I’d seen a sign for a public park and descended the steps into it.  I walked right to the back of it where there was a ricketty picnic table under a tall mulberry tree. Bellamy – the real one hopped into the next door paddock. I sat and ate my saucisson baguette and almond biscuit and drank Orangina while writing my journal.  This is truly the life.  I am so grateful to be going my own way.  Any trepidation about this has now passed.  Here’s to a great camino!  The town is quiet: everyone lunches here. I love a society that organises itself around a two hour lunch break. How civilised!

I walked back to the Gite communal, showered with a camping ground shower – ie. one that you push the button which lasts for 10 second, then it goes off, and washed my clothes in one of many big porcelein sinks in the large laundry room.  I thought it would be a good idea to get some Arnica lotion to rub on my muscles, but ended up getting Weleda oil.  After the supermarket opened again I bought food for today and tomorrow. I feel more prepared now.

I went to the Office de Tourisme to book to nights ahead. Jacques I had texted “Paths are easier now. In Angles with Jacques. You have to ring to be at the municipal.” The young woman was Jack (or maybe Jacqueline) of all trades. She doubles as La Poste staffer as well. I remembered I still need toothpaste.  Charlotte was a wonderful help. She booked my next nights for me.  I also asked her about getting to Carcassonne and Lourdes, and whether there were communal gites for St Jacques pilgrims. I knew it was a long shot – everyone is a pilgrim in Lourdes – aren’t they? She was so helpful, and told me a little about the megaliths that were were upstairs in the museum.  I wrote glowing comments on some forms she gave me about her service.  And I used wifi briefly, tried to blog, but it wasn’t cooperating, so I just checked email and instead decided to go upstairs to the museum. At first Charlotte said there were no tickets (I like to collect souvenirs as I go), but she said she had old ones and she’d find one before I came back down.  She explained about the Visigoths who had come from Western Europe prior to the Romans.

The exposed beams of the Tourist Office building

Like a boat

Murat Menhir museum - giant stones in the museum

Menhir museum – Office de Tourisme, Murat

I decided to walk early tomorrow.  I’d also planned out my next week of walking as I’d started to realise if I didn’t plan a little, I might not make it to Somport in time to get back to the conference in London in the second week of September.  I went to buy a baguette and went back to make dinner. I got a pre-packaged meal, but bought extra broccoli which I steamed.  There was jam in the fridge to have on the baguette in the morning, and coffee in the cupboard.  I’m not so practiced at making the drip coffee, but I’ll give it a go. A coffee is a good start to a walking day, so I’d found out.

It was still really light when I went to bed at 8.30pm. I should’ve closed the shutters on the outside of the windows, as the streetlights were bright.  And, I was a little silly, and I’d sent back my eye-patch to Paris.  It would turn out that I needed it more than once, and instead had broken sleep.  I was also a little cold, and had that kind of sleep you have when you are slightly too cold to be comfortable, but never get up to do anything about it!

Via Tolosana Day 13: One day I walk

Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare – Fagairolles 17 kms

My favourite singer/guitarist/poet, seems to have amazing insight into what it is to walk in this life.  I have many of his albums and several of his beautiful songs speak of travelling, walking and getting home.  It is a profound realisation, that we only ever walk alone in this world, no matter how many other beings surround us.  I realise on this day, that I was choosing to walk home, in a way, to myself.

One Day I Walk – Bruce Cockburn

Oh I have been a beggar
And shall be one again
And few the ones with help to lend
Within the world of men
One day I walk in flowers
one day I walk on stones
Today I walk in hours
One day I shall be home
I have sat on the street corner
And watched the boot heels shine
And cried out glad and cried out sad
With every voice but mine
One day I walk in flowers
one day I walk on stones
Today I walk in hours
One day I shall be home
One day I shall be home

I awoke early, but wasn’t in any hurry to get up quickly because I needed to go to the La Poste to post my extras back to Paris before I could walk anywhere. I said goodbye to Florian, closed the door after him and once again felt like the keeper of the house. I wrote morning pages, my journal and had breakfast, all before 8am.

I was all packed, and I didn’t feel like waiting around, so I left, depositing the key in the post box next to the door. I felt so free walking from the gite my plastic bag of postage swinging by my side. As it was still way before La Poste opening time, I checked my emails at the Office de Tourisme (the nifty thing is I could still use the wi-fi even though it was closed).  I wasn’t the only one.  Another woman came with her black laptop to check hers too. My money had still not cleared so I had to hope that sending a package to Paris wasn’t going to be too expensive.

La Poste wasn’t open when I walked there. I waited for a couple of minutes, but it was obviously going to open late, and so instead I left to use the public toilet under the town square down next to the river. By the time I returned to the office, there was a line, so I ended up waiting for about 15 minutes to get served. I didn’t leave until 9.45am having sent my sleeping bag and my heavy sandals, umbrella and assorted power cords back to Jerome in Paris. It all fit perfectly in a ready-made box for 13 euros. Even though my money hadn’t cleared I didn’t feel worried. It will all be OK. I’m sure in Murat I will be able to sort it all out. I’ll take my time and write.

There was a cute baby in the post office who was more than a little frustrated that my enquiry was taking so long, so I assisted his mother to amuse him with peek-a-boos and my baby French. Actually talking to young children is the best. They repeat things over and over, and don’t get frustrated when you don’t understand.  But he was just a baby and wasn’t going to help teach me French.

St Gervais beagle for Anita

St Gervais beagle for Anita

My pack felt so much lighter as I walked toward the Boulangerie to get lunch, a quiche, and morning tea, an escargot.  I felt lighter too. It all feels right. At the little epicerie next door I found a perfect 1 litre bottle that fits into my pack pocket easily.  Crossing back over the river, I passed my new baby friend and his mother. That was sweet.

Narrow lanes exiting St Gervais

St Gervais maze

St Jacques shells in shape of arrow with message from St Gervais residents

I think I go … this way! Via tolosane … Les amis du vieux St Gervais vous souhaitent bon chemin.

Small mini car reminder of a googomobil


The way out of St Gervais was a maze of small walled laneways which eventually turned into a forest track, not before I discovered the resting place of the Goggomobil (it wasn’t actually a Goggomobil, but it was a micro car. It needed to be, a normal car wouldn’t have made it up the tiny lane). I’d seen it the day before zipping around the town, crossing paths with the town band. I was telling Florian about the Yellow Pages advertisement all those years ago on Australian television after I saw the little 3-wheeler again when we were eating dinner. Tommy Dysart’s adorable Scottish accent G-O-G-G-O has proven to be unforgettable to me and probably millions of Australians – no wonder the ad won awards.

I kept walking up the steep track which didn’t look like the right way but it was. It became a wider fire track before long. I had received a text from Sonia the day before to remind me to pay attention to the markers. She had gone so far out-of-the-way, that she had lost several hours. Jacques I had also texted, “I was lost twice, Jacques once … Viola is here.” So that’s where Viola is! It was so nice to get news of her. The signs were a little confusing and I nearly went the wrong way once, but managed to stay on course. Once off the fire track again it was a really shady tramp through chestnut groves until Castanet-le-Haut. Thank goodness for small mercies as it was already warm. Today felt like an 80s Michael Praed, Robin Hood set. The landscape seems more lush somehow, maybe catching up with the rain we got some days ago.

Forest trees

Robin Hood country

Distant views of mountains

Distant views

Giant chestnut tree?

Giant chestnut?

Large trunk with huge hollow knots

A beech tree perhaps

As I continued I could hear the not too distant sound of a tree being chainsawed. I hoped I wasn’t walking into a falling tree. I had views of the mountains on the other side of the river valley between huge chestnut trees and many dry stone walls. Different pine trees with elongated cones joined the path and then I came upon the most massive chestnut tree I’d seen, covered with moss. I had to touch it, and talk to it, it was so magnificent.

The little town of Andabre appeared out of nowhere, at the end of a fast and short descent and I got up close and personal with someone’s back door as the way traced two edges of the house down to the road. Passing through the town quickly, past the local gnomes and sighting the flamingo I didn’t see in the Camargue, the path followed the creek for a little time. I was still getting used to the idea that it was just me. I was now fully responsible for my direction and speed.

Gnome holding a nautical telescope

Andabre nautical gnome

Flamingo statue

Andabre flamingo

Just before I came to the D22E12, I saw a sign pointing to Ancien Chapelle Notre Dame de St Eutrope up on the mountain and I remember Florian told me it had a dolmen. I’ll see it next time – when I have the energy to go up 700 metres in altitude and back down.  Just across the main road, next to the La Mare (the same river that runs through St Gervais) I stopped at the site of an ancient mill,  Ancien Moulin du Nougayrol. I put my pack down at a nearby picnic bench and checked it out, and could see the giant holding pond (like a good-sized circular swimming pool) that the water channelled into. On the outside of it, large flat stones were set into the stone wall as steps up to the top.  Back at the bench, I took my time. I wrote again (!!!) despite being bothered by wasps as I was eating my snail.  I filled up on water, as I’d already built up the usual sweat. A motorcycle touring couple pull up. They were completely kitted out with panniers, full leathers. He speaks German quietly, she speaks really loudly, they decide on a direction and leave again then double back.  A child is playing near the river, I can hear their voice.  A dog barks, and the sound gets closer, and it barks more, probably as it realises I’m sitting close by on the park bench. It’s owner is trying to pacify it.  I can’t see anything though as the trees mask the river – they must be on the other bank.  It might be time to move on.

Dry stone wall and trees with Visigoth sign

Visigoth site

Across the road again from this picnic spot I walk past an embankment and a sign that indicates a Visigoth (Vestiges wisighotiques) site which I couldn’t see an entrance to. Mostly these sites seem to be huge sites of mossy rocks, and there is not a great deal of explanation unless they are in the midst of another cared-for property.  I continued on the road for a while until I got to Castenet-le-Haut. La Poste drives past and sweeps up the peppermint smell for me from the shoulder strip.  My shoe starts to squeak. It also comes to mind that when you’re walking through a town, you need to find a ‘proper’ place to go to the toilet.  It is easier in the forest. I keep walking.

Roof tops and tiles in Castanet-le-Haut

Castanet-le-Haut skyline

Walls, balisage, cross and slate roof

GR653 sign and cross

Slate wall fixed with metal pins

Ingenious slate wall

Paved path out of Castanet-le-Haut

Exit to the mountains

I cross the bridge and walk into the town past the most interesting type of shingles on the outside of houses that I’ve never seen before.  Large rectangles of slate held in place by metal pins.  Other medieval architecture, and a new kind of paved path took me out of this dear little place. Crossing back over the river, which is more like a creek now, I join a wider track under pine trees.

Pine forest trail

Pine forest trail

Rocky track up hill

Rocky road

I come across the couple from the Office of Tourisme again having a break.  I find out they are from Valence near Grenoble.  They had walked from there and were very much in agreement in the ‘go your own way, at your own speed’ philosophy. I walked on ahead of them with their advice ‘take it easy’ ringing in my ears. From here it was a constant, sometimes steep ascent (especially the part where Sonia was warning me of a turn) up around the edge of the mountain, along a narrow and rocky path, which became really exposed. Climb every mountain wasn’t even enough to make this an easier climb. I got really hot, and for the first time my heart beat really fast with the exertion. I realise that sometimes if you knew how hard things were going to be, you would never start. This climb was one of them. The views however, got better and better.  I rested half-way up in the shade – under pines and chestnuts and noticed I’d done so under a little red and white sign.  I’ve noticed this, just from a couple of hours walking alone.  I tend to look up just at the right moment to see a sign confirming my way. I walked through beautiful avenues of tall trees.

Track disappearing into trees with fence posts and distant structure

Beautiful farm land

Track disappearing into trees with fence posts and farm land in foreground

Elysian Fields?

At Sayret, reaching the crest of a hill, more open farmland greeted me.  The view from the top was amazing, and I’d got there quicker than I expected.  The characteristic hay bales started to dot the landscape.  I chose a beautiful lunch spot on a track overlooking open paddocks.  The French couple passed me after I’d finished my quiche. At some point an eagle circled overhead, and for some reason the tune of Borodin’s Polotzvian Dances came to mind. I googled the words … here are some of them …

Fly on the wings of the wind
To our native land, dear song of ours,
There, where we have sung you at liberty,
Where we felt so free in singing you.
There, under the hot sky,
The air is full of bliss,
There to the sound of the sea
The mountains doze in the clouds;
There the sun shines so brightly,
Bathing the native mountains in light,
Splendid roses blossom in the valleys,
And nightingales sing in the green forests.
And sweet grapes grow.
You are free there, song,
Fly home …

Mountain views, flowers in foreground

Mountain views

Cottage herbs/flowers next to track

Just like a country garden

Shaded forest track

Shaded forest track

When I got going again, it was not long before I joined an even more used vehicle track and came quite quickly to a 4 way corner just outside Ginestet. Here I had to make a choice.  There was a sign indicating the GR71, and it descended gradually down a hill via a grassy track.  It was on my Dodo mud map so knew that this would link with another road that would take me to Fagairolles, but I didn’t know whether it was a good route to take. Alternatively, I could stay on the bitumen and follow the D53 which would take me straight to my end goal in full sun.  I didn’t fancy walking by road for two kilometres, as my feet were already tired. The GR offered shade. I put off my decision.

“Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend” Jimmy Buffet (and Bruce Cockburn)

I had used up all my water before lunch, so I walked the short few hundred metres into the little settlement and a kind resident obliged me by filling my large bottle.  I made my way back out to the 5 way corner.  I chose grass and shade.

Grassy track, GR71

Chemin de terre GR71

A metal filigree cross

Filigree cross

It was a track fenced off from farmland. It was clear from the droppings, that people also rode horses along it.  I descended, then turned a wide-angled corner only to find my way obstructed by a massive tree.  I thought, how am I going to get around this?  As I got closer, my question was answered. There was a clear track up over the huge root ball. So I climbed over it as others had done before me.  It must have fallen a few weeks before.

Brown cows

Just like Brown’s cows

I was passing cows in the paddocks to both sides, but at one point it looked like the cows were on my side of the fence. I paused briefly to plot how I’d negotiate around 5 cows on a path only 3 metres wide, but realised when I came upon them, that it was just an interesting optical illusion. My path was clear and fenced.  I said hello to the brown cows on the other side, as I usually do to the animals I pass, and went on my way.  I’m a taurean, so I feel a special affinity for these animals.

I kept walking, noticing black and white feathers and small apples on the path. Gorgeous bushes of holly formed the hedgerow.  More cows, this time Friesians – bos taurus.  I did choose well, the shade continued.  More round hay bales.  I saw a man and his son splitting wood in his yard, and I confirmed with him that I was on the right track to Fagairolles.

Prickly holly leaves

The holly … and the ivy?

Hedgerow tunnel

Hedgerow tunnel

The track met the D922 and I crossed to join a small one lane road into the town.  It was a tiny place, a hameau or hamlet nestled in a hill. It might have to take the award for tiniest town I stayed in on the trip.  There were many cars parked, but deserted of people, and it seems to be the site for Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage, which I didn’t realise was Hunting and Wildlife.  Tiny town, and a little creepy also, now I think about it.  Fagairolles is not on the chemin, but I didn’t think that the first day after my rest I could do another big walk.  This was a compromise. I recognised the Gites of France sign and proceeded to ring the numbers on the front door. The sign said something about ‘relais de ouveture a 17:00’, so I wasn’t too fussed if I had to wait. There was a nice picnic table there.  After about 45 minutes my hostess arrived and let me in.  She signed my credentiale, drew me a little picture of the St Eutrope Chapel that I missed and took my 12 euros.  I had the place to myself.

I had arrived at 3.45pm and walked about 17 kms.  Taking off 45 minutes for lunch and breaks, that makes 5 hours of walking, pretty good. Just over 3 kms per hour.  The gite was really comfy if a little cavernous with just me in it. The bathroom was really clean and the kitchen well-appointed, with a lovely long table for big groups. There were two rooms each with several beds downstairs, then there were more upstairs on a mezzanine. So it felt a little cathedral-like. I rattled around in it by myself. There was a big window facing west that the sun shone in as it descended. I chose a room with two bunk beds.  I think there was more accommodation next door which was closed off from my part.

I showered, washed my clothes and put them outside on the washing rack.  Claudine gave me a packet of risotto yesterday, so I’m thinking of her as I watch it heat up. There will be enough for breakfast too – lucky, there’s certainly no boulangerie or epicerie in this little place.

After dinner, and still walking gingerly, I went to have a look at the ancient bread-making site le four à pain de Fagairolles – the apparent highlight of this place. I wasn’t long out of bed on my return and as I was trying to get to sleep, lightning penetrated even my closed eyelids. I rushed out to save my clothes from the rain.