Walking without a donkey – Travels in France/Spain 10

Pontorson 10.5.17; Brittany circular, coastal walk / ‘les balades’ (rambles) / ‘les randonnées’ (hikes) – La Bernière to Port de Pornic 11.5.17, both France.

Journey via Bla Bla Car to Zaragoza, Spain 12.5.17.

Youth hostel, Pontarson, Normandy, France.

On the Camino Francés in Spain, the hostels are where you meet other backpackers and exchange tales. Up until today, I had not encountered anyone in France, but the two women I had seen the previous night were breakfasting when I got down to the youth hostel kitchen. After being initially engaged in (French) conversation with a rather interested man who told me he did all sorts of work, anything he was asked to do, and then kissed me goodbye (yes, the dangers of being a single female traveller!), I was invited to sit with them for a while. They asked me what I was up to and after explaining, I was enthusiastically given a piece of paper by Lysiane, with her name and address on it, and told that if I ever visited Brussels I could stay with her in return for Shiatsu. Almost everyone I meet and talk to knows what Shiatsu is and likes it; it really is quite notable compared with the UK.

Station, Pontorson from where I got my first and only train during this month. Goodbye Normandy!

Myself and a number of others arrived at the station before it opened. It was unclear to us all how we should get tickets and where to go, until a brusque woman came to open up. We waited in the gorgeous sun before realising we needed to cross the tracks for the stopping train to Rennes which I had booked online the day before. A Japanese couple regaled us, as we waited, with a comparison between the efficiency of French signposting and the contrasting confusion in Britain.

My day’s walk on the Brittany coast began in the rain at La Bernière-en-Retz, a small town where a lot of street work was being carried out, but that was otherwise deserted. The sea was well out, revealing broad sands with low stone walls. I felt immensely light-hearted, as happy as I was when walking in northern Spain in the  Autumn of 2016.

The path was easy to find and varied. Sometimes it was on cliffs, at others beside dwellings. Always there was the expansive view of the water, with miniscule collectors of seafish in the distance. After a while there was a series of platforms from which hung voluminous lift-nets. I was told that when the tide is in, these fill with fish.  These traditional ‘carrelets’ are expensive apparently, but bring high yields and are found all along this coast.

‘les carrelets’c/o Olivier on Pinterest

The low stone walls are also demarcations related to fishing, left over from many years ago, and easily seen at certain times of the day.

Elegant hotels and old people’s homes line parts of the shore.

Grassy paths wound up and over the rocks, seagulls shrieked, and the fresh breeze bought welcome fragrances of the cypress trees.

Not a cypress.

Picnic lunch was taken (illegally, it transpired) under ancient stones to shelter from the wet.

Dolmen de la Joselière.

Port de Pornic with its gentle harbour, silver grey turrets, and small yachts came as a surprise. Rather quaint and sophisticated by turns, it is quite a centre but I did not investigate. Instead, here I turned and headed back the way I had come, stopping to divest myself of waterproof trousers as the sun started to show itself, seeing things from back-to-front and in a different light, literally.

The next day I took a Bla Bla Car from Bordeaux, via Bayonne, Irun, and Pamplona to Zaragoza to stay with the genial Yvonne.

Bordeaux station. France.
I needed a brandy while waiting in the extreme heat of midday.

Bla Bla Car is generally unknown in the UK. It is a fantastic system, originally set up so that someone who is making a long-distance journey has company while they drive. Nowadays some complain that it has become a sort of glorified taxi service, but on the whole I found it to be a social thing.

On the way.

It operates in France and Spain, and there is a website where you search for the setting-off point and destination, and then identify who you might like to go with. Like air bnb, the drivers are vetted and reviewed, and you can guarantee that the cost is less than the cheapest mode of public transport for that same journey. Sometimes the driver reserves the right to choose, and although you have paid (I used PayPal for safety), you can be rejected, and then the fee is repaid immediately.

In fact, it was often tricky to find a train or bus which goes went a to b at the times I was searching, whereas it was always possible to find someone who was driving, once you got the hang of the site. And of course I met fascinating people. On the first leg, from Bordeaux to Bayonne, I sat in the back with a young woman who told me all about her life, parents, health and loves, showing me photos and shedding a tear now and then.

Bayonne station, France. Most of the Bla Bla Car pick-ups happen at well known sites.
Passing through Irun on the mountainous border.
Massive trucks doing paperwork.

At Pamplona  we said good luck to two gentlemen who had both injured themselves on the Camino, been home to recover, and were re-joining it there. Then Charles, the car owner, and I made the final leg to Zaragoza, arriving at the radio station with messages flying between myself, my expectant host, and the driver. I have found all the drivers this month to be courteous and obliging. It was good that I had my daughter’s old Nokia with a topped-up Spanish SIM in it as we were late and so I was able to communicate by text and phone.

I had been asked several times why I was bothering to go to Zaragoza. It seems to have a poor reputation with tourists as a predominantly industrial city. My reasons for going: Yvonne kindly invited me when I met her at her father’s funeral and that was my plan – if I am invited somewhere I go, that’s how I choose between all the possible amazing places in Spain. Result: it was a fascinating and enjoyable place to visit, made considerably better I am sure by being shown around and treated like a queen by a resident!

 

 

 

 

 

Walking without a donkey: Travels in France 9

Bas-Courtils to Mont Saint-Michel to Pontorson 9.5.17.

In this part of France I would suggest that it’s always better to go by the randonnées, Sentier de Littoral (coastal path), than by the road, as there are rarely pavements.

I left Bas-Courtils at 8am on a gloriously sunny morn. Beside the sea, the land stretches level affording a distant, nearly unbroken view.

The very long line of sheep is in the background of this photo (as close as I could get) but if you can enlarge it you will see -it’s amazing.

What a racket! Sheep: many, one after the other, having been let out (perhaps after the winter?) moving slowly in single file across the field, over the grey clay. A female and her lamb were leading, with not a human in sight, and yet they were reminiscent of the group of us who crossed the bay yesterday, though we did follow a guide.

Unlike the walks I had been making in the days preceding this, the path crossed numerous obstacles. To be honest it was a trial to have to climb and clamber over fences with a huge backpack. What with that, gates which do not open, and crossing deep, wet grassy fields, well, really this way is not pilgrim-friendly.

Thank goodness it was so very beautiful.


Mont Saint-Michel is clear in the distance. My human eye (rather than the camera) can see the shuttle buses, like black and white caterpillars on the horizon, the place I walked along 14 hours earlier. They are in contrast to the luminous spring green of the fields.

It is cold, exposed like yesterday, but still I have bare arms. I did not even think about it. It was more that I moved instinctively towards the Mount.

I crossed rivers by planks, sidled round deep pools, and struggled to follow the way which did not seem clear to me.

Another surge of black-headed sheep ma maaa-ed their way from their farm onto the plains.

I arrived at the M S-M service buildings: restaurants, shops (though I followed the signs and found none),  toilets (equally hard to locate), and so on. And then having completed the ‘Chemin de la Baie’ I launched straight, alongside the River Cuesnon, a new ‘randonnée’ in the direction of Pontorson.


After the hubbub of the tourists, the peace of the river was potent. Birds quietly mentioned, incongruous chariots raced silently round the track nearby, dogs were carried patiently in the backpacks of two cyclists, and just me making my way along a hard path beside a swollen river with butterflies blue.


I was continuing to take care of the way I walked, the parts of my feet on which the weight landed, and minute details of my posture. This walking provides ample time to pay attention to long-practiced bad habits.

More glorious weather.

Hush reeds in the wind, like witches whispering. It was a very short 10 kms to the next town, so I gave in and lay down, with my mind all but clear and just the sensation of the sun on my back.

An ant’s view.

My feet were throbbing, my ankles had felt quite unpleasant for a stretch. Now I listened lazily to the ducks, the farm machinery moaning, and felt the grass dampen me. Seed pods sailed down and piqued my thigh.  I was not exactly pushing myself. There was no need to be in Pontorson before 5pm when the youth hostel opened.

Random thoughts passed through me: When you wait, you see more around you. There was no signal so no sending or receiving. It was the hottest day so far, and I needed a hat and sunglasses for the first time!

There was nothing to do when I arrived at 1.30 – all was closed. So I had a peaceful beer and sat in the main square opposite the Hôtel de Ville. It is a comprehensive town with a thoroughly helpful tourist information: there was free wifi where I could wait as long as I wanted in order to book trains and send messages. The only down-side were two men who would not leave me alone as I picnicked so I had to move on.

Old places with character.
Smart town houses.
Eglise Notre Dame

It was 22 degrees. I was impressed by the pharmacy because it sold herbs and homeopathy too. I was surprised by conversations in English at the next table. In fact it took me a while to realise, while I sat and wrote, that it was the English language I was hearing; about dogs and living here in Normandy; believe me, it was about the M25!

Handsome youth hostel.

There were a couple of women with rucksacks at the hostel: the first time I had seen other trekkers since I started walking. They did not stop and exchange despite my smile. The very young man in charge of the hostel was welcoming and helpful. All was clean, and I had a room with bunks to myself and space to do my t’ai chi.

 

Walking without a donkey – Travels in France 8

Genêts to Mont Saint-Michel (13 kms across the sand) to Bas-Courtils 8.5.17

‘As I left home that morning and walked away from the sleeping village, it never occurred to me that others had done this before me.’ Laurie Lee, London Road chapter.

Yes, me too! Several people had recently enquired, on hearing I was going to visit Mont Saint-Michel, if I was planning to walk or not. It is an island in the bay which forms a maritime corner of southern Normandy. I had replied that I was walking around the coast and crossing the boardwalk to get there from the south. Until, that is, I realised what they meant: these people had already been to the Mount before me and they had crossed the sands on foot from Genêts. Then I knew that was what I had to do this bank holiday Monday.

The day began with 25 minutes of fast walking from the youth hostel to the set-off place. (Note: If you want to do this too, and I highly recommend that you do, and if you are not just making a day-trip from home, you must book accommodation in advance (see below)). It was the track I would have taken last night had I not been distracted by the beach and tiredness, and consequently missed the markers. I rushed cross-country, through soft grass and pale powdery sand, as the day heated up. As always, everyone was really helpful, and I made it just in time. It is impossible to make the journey to the isle from the east without a guide as the sands are treacherous and the tide must be at the right turn. There are two companies which offer to take you as part of a group (see below for details), and it was busy, busy, busy, possibly the busiest day of the year. As a result there were groups leaving every 30 minutes or so, and I had to wait. No problem, I whiled away the time in a cafe with wifi and the most generous waitress. I know I have ‘brass neck’, but it comes in useful in certain situations, such as when you need to send a well-translated message in French but do not know how to do it yourself.I watched the others who were massing: men, women and children; old and young; and many who had clearly been many times before. I was the only one with a ‘serious’ rucksack (by which I mean I had clothes, sleeping bag, cooking utensils etc on my back – stuff for a month’s travelling), and I too removed my footwear, dangling them from a strap so I had both hands to steady myself as we negotiated the sinking sands.

What a wonderful and moving experience! Layers of time seemed to concertina, and I felt as if I was simultaneously myself and a medieval pilgrim, arriving at last from afar, at the culmination of an arduous journey and full of spiritual expectation.

Trekking across the sands like that takes two and a half hours. Be prepared for cold feet, lots of mud, and finding yourself in seawater to mid calf or knees (depending on the weight of what you are carrying).

There is a large rock, very similar to Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian in Scotland, called La Roche Tombelaine, which you stop at on the way. The guide gives continuous commentary (in French) about the fascinating history and wild-life, together with stories galore.

According to wikipedia, the name Tombelaine means “the tomb of Hélène”, from a princess named Hélène, daughter of King Hoël, said to have been buried on the rock.

In 1423, Tombelaine was taken over by the English because it was close enough from which to attack the Mount. Luckily it was unsuccessful. In actual fact, no-one has managed to damage M S-M, not during the war, before, or since, so it is easy to understand why some Normandy folk believe it has divine protection.

As we got closer and closer, the grandeur, the sheer size of the Abbey on top of such a small base, was awe inspiring.

The Mount is made of granite, like our own Aberdeen, from the nearby Chausey islands. Rising 80 metres above sea level, it was quite some task, in the past, to bring the rocks up.

Many ‘workers’ trod this wheel to do the job of raising food, tools and building materials in 1880.

When I arrived, there were long queues for the foot fountains for washing so I did not bother, and I had to pay to get into the toilet. Then the woman in the tourist office told me I would not be allowed into the Abbey with my back pack due to terrorist threats. I reckoned differently, not having come all this way on foot, with this weight, only to be refused admittance. Barefoot, I continued my winding way up the back street to avoid the crowds.

Today I made an exception to my own rule and bought a ticket. I do not usually pay to go into places because I do not have the money for the expense, and because it encourages me to go to different venues and see things from different angles.  But I knew I needed to go into this one, and I discovered later that the entrance ticket hall was the place the very poor pilgrims of the past were received to be given alms and admitted for a blessing. If I did indeed come here in a previous life, I was surely one of this group.

The almonry, now ticket hall, once the lowly reception for the poorest.
Lofty ceilings and slithers of windows split the light into holy shafts.

We waited for our English speaking guide (he was very entertaining and knowledgeable) on the terrace before entering. As it turned out, no-one looked twice at my pack so I did not have to plead or prostrate myself to be let in. Once again my age, sex, and perhaps skin colour seemed to be a bonus. It was well worth it, but a long tour. I left after 2 hours because I was very cold and getting tired carrying the weighty luggage around with me, but it was still going strong when I peeled away.

There is so much to say about this place, and many photographs available elsewhere. I listened and looked at chamber after chamber, conscious of the cold stone under my soles and imagining myself as one of the nuns he was describing, silent and worshipping through the ages.

The cloisters were being rennovated so I had to take this through the railings.

I was moved by the dark, Romanesque Crypt of St Martin with its eight pillars where sinners awaited sentencing;

And fully engaged by the tale of a 1000 years of construction stimulated apparently, originally, by Saint Michael (as in the archangel) speaking not once, but twice to Aubert, Bishop of nearby Avranches, before he took heed and started construction; and, finally, with the building of the Gothic-style choir (chancel).

Dining Hall where the richest visitors were entertained by the Abbot.


It was sumptuously hot once outside again, and I wound my way down between souvenir shops and restaurants, sampling a small red wine to warm my cockles. There I spied a picture of a man on a donkey, the grandfather of the owner, held up by his son.

A garden hidden behind an almost solid gate (did not stop me).
Great views from high up.

By the time I walked out towards the northern coast of Brittany, under a baking sun and along the sun-bleached wooden walk-way, I was not a little dazed by the special energy of the place.

Dazed and a bit tilted.
Still very low tide. We were advised to come back again when the sea is surrounding the Mount – it only happens twice a year.
You can not tell from this, but the wind is getting up.

I found my way to the bus-stop, ate a snack while I waited, sailed eastwards right through Bas-Courtils, making a mental note that there was somewhere I might eat later, and alighting some 5 kms further on in Courtils, not knowing they were two different villages with almost identical names.

When you have been walking and walking for days, and then you get into a vehicle, it seems very, very fast and rather unnerving.

I had booked a bed, but when I went into the first shop I could find to get wifi so I could look on my phone for the address, I realised I did not have it. I started to panic (I rarely worry when I am away walking, but have noticed that it can happen when I am tired). The kind proprietress came to help and suggested I look on my list of received calls from 2 days ago. That way I managed to phone and get the address, only to then discover my mistake. Of course, I planned to walk, but no, the same woman insisted that she take me back there in her car – what a sweetie, such kindness.

Gîtes d’Etape (sort of travellers hostel), Bas-Courtils.
A double bed, in fact the entire place, all to myself for 11 euros (no breakfast but a place to hang my washing).

I have discovered that I am the sort of person who wants to know why things happen. Walking has taught me that when I pay attention, if I am very quiet inside, and I listen in a very relaxed way, the reason for everything is simply there. But it does require me to be calm, to really stay in this exact moment. It means that the anxious parts must go to the back, and trust or acceptance must be in the foreground. (Although trusting can be a conscious act, and this other thing simply happens while you are living.) Perhaps it is an undoing rather than a doing. Undoing the learned concern, questioning, and fearing.

I could still see the Mount from where I stayed the night, almost the same size as it was on another horizon when I left earlier that morning (see photo above).

It is proven to me by a tiny thing like forgetting to eat the orange and discovering it days later when there’s nothing else except hunger; larger things, such as not planning accommodation and then it rains so you could not have walked anyway; and even larger things, where you meet the right person at the right time, and although it can seem completely unfathomable then, it results in a major life change. That phrase comes to me: ‘mine is not to question why’.

A place of pilgrimage, linkin Mont Saint-Michel to Santiago de Compostelle where I visited in late 2017, with the coquille Saint Jaques (shell of St James).

That night I felt blessed. Truly.

I stayed at the youth hostel in Genêts on the mainland (http://www.hifrance.org/auberge-de-jeunesse/genets–baie-mont-st-michel.html). You may be able to book there at the last minute if it is not a bank holiday or high season, but if you want to stay on the Mount (it is an island), you definitely have to plan ahead as it is one of the most popular visitor attractions in France.

La Manche tourist site (English language version) with details of walks, maps etc.  http://www.manche-tourism.com/gr223-coastal-path

One company with whom you can walk across the bay. Cost: 7 euros one-way (you can walk back (or go by bus, or in a horse and cart) via another route). You can also go and return in one day, with time there to sight-see. And there are other alternatives.  https://www.decouvertebaie.com/42-traversees-traditionnelles-traditionnelle–depart-genets-point-a.html

Mont Saint-Michel tourist site http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/index.htm?lang=en

Walking without a donkey – Travels in France 7

Granville to Genêts, Normandy coastal walk GR223. 7.5.17.

1.5 days walking. The longest walk at 9.5 hours and more climbing than any other étape (stage). 40kms

Leaving Granville just as it was getting light.
Looking back towards the town.
Deserted beach.
See how the colours start to appear with the sun.

 

Banks of soft cow parsley are dropping with dew.

My last walk was in Spain at harvest. Now it is spring, and time for sowing.

Seed drill in the distance.
There are maps like this all along the way. Allows you to get your bearings.

I pass through the coastal edges of villages and along promenades, with a wide range of fresh-air art and information points. Of course I am not 19 years old as Laurie Lee was, but this part of ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ resonates with me. I am lucky not to have back ache when I walk, only tired feet after a while: ‘The next day, getting back onto the London road, I forgot everything but the way ahead. I walked steadily, effortlessly, hour after hour in a kind of swinging, weightless realm. I was at that age which feels neither strain nor friction, when the body burns magic fuels, so that it seems to glide in warm air, about a foot off the ground, smoothly obeying its intuitions. Even exhaustion, when it came, had a voluptuous quality, and sleep was caressive and deep, like oil.’ Yes, that is exactly what sleep feels like at the end of that sort of a day.

A massive deck chair – part of a children’s playground.

I was not sure what these were.
One by one along the seashore, 10 paces or so apart.
Then I realise, these are the different stages of marine weather, famous from the Shipping Forecast.

A man in his pyjamas, dressing gown, and slippers assured me there was no bar/câfé in this village at 9.30am. I had no breakfast before I left which was an obstacle – silly -it was too early in the day to be hungry and thirsty.

Pretty place though.
With a building which was not too different from a Kentish oasthouse.

There were more hills and valleys than any of the previous days, and my rucksack was feeling heavy, but I forget that in the lovely countryside. Narrow paths split the greenery, while tough grass and golden gorse wrap around the sharp-edged cliffs.

I briefly ask myself ‘Why come away from home to walk?’ and immediately the answer is clear: because it is so very beautiful and peaceful.

There is a man with two wives and a dozen children, or so I fancy. The kids scrape past me from behind on their bikes and give me a shock. No-one says hello. The bright green ferns with their heads curled over, stand up like meerkats.

Down a picturesque flight of steps I go, into an historic dell. Anyone who does what I do knows that after 4 hours of walking, going downstairs is hard work, especially when it is slippy from the previous day’s rain, so I take them gingerly like a toddler.

It was quite magical down in Painter’s Valley,  once a haunt of famous artists. I imagine them with their easels and floppy hats, just glimpsing each other through the foliage, brandishing brushes.

La Vallée des Peintres

OMG! then 200 steps up again, followed by a rest to breathe and pull my socks back up after they had slid into my shoes.

I take two minutes for a pee, drink of water, and view of Jullouville beach with its glorious view of huts and horses. A loud male voice interrupts my musings. Round the corner, it turns out to belong to someone trying to impress the girls.

I ate my banana, bread and chocolate for lunch on a bridge. All filling the air was birdsong. There was sun on my legs, and real contentment, despite the slightly slimy seat.  For a minute I thought I might see Ratty and Mr Toad of Toad Hall.

The cuckoos seem to be following me down the coast: birds which sleep in someone else’s nest.

At this stage I am further 3 hours from Genets and I am about level with Bouillon, where I was supposed to be 2 days ago. There are simple roads, simple hedgerows, and I take regular steps, my thoughts rich with the wild flowers.

It is utterly wonderful, my favourite sort of countryside.
Footsore, I remind myself to take it step by step, ‘poco à poco’ so I can manage the distance without injury.

Beach huts behind the brambles.
And a caterpillar nursery which I pointed out to a little girl running ahead of the family, silently, so I didn’t scare her.

Just above my head I spot someone coasting on the wind in a hang glider. I could not tell if it was a man or woman. I watched and watched as s/he hung there, coasting on currents at a gentle pace, and I imagined what that view must be like.

The sweetest smell of earth, grass and  flowers; raggedy white campion and curled up ferns. Runners thanked me as I stood aside to let them pass and was rewarded with a backlash of heady body smell. The slow roller-coaster slalom rocks are ahead of me, the oaks alongside, and hot waves of birds in meadows are on my left.


I reached a high point with more abandoned stone remains and exchanged brief French with a father coming in the opposite direction, who asked, what is the lie of the land beyond? Turns out he had a ‘poussette’, a push chair, with a baby in it. As I walked on I wondered how they had managed that far with either no path at all, or huge rocks to clamber over.

I am high over Carolles-Plage now.

I continued with a light heart. If you look carefully you will see how often nature intertwines plants of contrasting colours.

I take donkeys as a sign that I am on the right track, given the name of my blog.
Reminding me of the Camino. I add a stone in memory of Hugh.

At 2.30 I started to think about a cup of tea again, and St Jean le Thomas was my reward.

A swimming pool to look at.
Tea on the terrace.
And today’s French elections to read about.

Then at 4pm, oh, the first sighting of Mont Saint-Michel in the distance. 
I began to ask ‘How far to Genets?’ which was a mistake. Either my walking pace was slow or they did not really know. It was just frustrating to think ‘just 20 minutes’, only to discover it was actually a full two hours later that I arrived at the Auberge de Jeunesse. I do so by the road from the beach at Bec d’Andaine, even though a kind beach-surfer type stops his car and kindly suggests I take the path. I think I was too tired to risk taking the wrong way. As Laurie Lee puts it, I was walking ‘in a mirage of solitary endurance’ by that time.

Nearly there, non?
Darkling, it was such a relief to arrive at the youth hostel, where I had to book ahead because of the bank holiday weekend. What a great welcome from the guy in charge: amazing service.

I shower, change, wash out my dirties, settle in to my ‘private’ room with wonderful crisply ironed white cotton sheets (as usual I am the only single woman, so I am again lucky with accommodation). And then I walked, well limped a little, into the immensely attractive village. There are streets of brown/grey-stone houses, all with climbers and gardens full of flowers. They have white-rimmed windows with lace curtains, and there are 3 restaurants which all fill up quickly.

The votes are starting to come in, and the man on my right is checking his phone every few minutes, arguing with his wife, and updating the rest of us round the restaurant. It is very tense with folk scared that Madame Le Pen will win, but as the evening goes on Macron seems to be the victor.

Food tastes so delicious after a walk! A very salty, ‘gallette’ (pancake) with chips, salad and cider is 15 euros. Almost all the bars and eateries I have been to have played songs in English. Is it for tourists? I am not sure but this evening I think I was the only non-French speaker.

When I get back I fall into conversation with the host. Inevitably Brexit (so embarrassing), and ‘Don’t you celebrate the end of the war on 8 May?’ I tell him that many of our school children (my daughter and nephew for example) come to Normandy to see the beaches and the mass graves and find it very moving.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee.

Auberge de Jeuness (youth hostel) website: http://www.hifrance.org/auberge-de-jeunesse/genets–baie-mont-st-michel.html

Walking without a donkey: France 6

Granville 6.5.27 Rain – the only walking I did today was around town.

Pretty gardens and houses in Granville.

Granville is a seaside resort in Normandy,  on a rocky promontory, and once a renowned cod fishing town. I arrived on foot yesterday and, due to the holiday weekend there was a lack of beds in the places I was moving on to. The tourist information were very helpful,  as was the woman at the Auberge de Jeunesse where I was lucky enough to find a bed. This morning it rained heavily so I stayed longer than planned.

Dull weather outside the Youth Hostel (Auberge de Jeunesse) but the sea.

I visited an internet cafe (see below for details) for breakfast: croissant, tea, wifi, and the use of a computer for my writing, which was most productive.

Plant pots bring some greenery into the city.

Later I found a creperie but ordered an omelette by mistake. One couple both had buns, two couples were each in matching black and white. Everyone drank cider, so presumably we were all tourists! I was the only one alone, and there was no wifi, nor salt and pepper!

La Courtine, crêpes and cider in a bright, clean bistro-style eateries.

Most bars do not seem to serve food. Some have bought croissants and have them in paper bags behind the bar to sell to customers, and I think, from observation, that you can get a take-away or have your own food and eat it there if you buy a drink.

Attractive colours, designed to please the eye.

By then the wind had died down and it was only drizzling. In the old town, I spotted Vennelle de Saint Michel, just like Edinburgh vennels (narrow pedestrian streets) quaint even in the drizzle.

A Normandy side street reminiscent of Edinburgh ones.

There are some nice shops in the Old Town and I enjoyed the one with artisan makes by a range of local crafters.

One of those 360 degree photos.

I returned to the Modern art museum again and rather cheekily managed to get in for free (there is a ticket which allows entry for both the Modern Art and Christian Dior museums, and as I did not visit the latter I asked for two visits to the former!).

Christian Dior museum.

I wanted to see the photo exhibition, Jeux de Construction by Jaques Faujour again as it made quite an impression on me yesterday.

MamRa museum of modern art, Gravillr
Apollinaire: and on rainy days

Faujour takes photos of people set against a variety of interesting backgrounds. He uses lines, broken lines, brings things into perspective, and above all, tells stories.

On a second viewing there is more to them than I had originally seen: he is always looking for a story. I see a photo which could have been of me when I was in Paris 35 years ago, before my ‘proper’ adult life began.

Young people relax in the Parisian shade.

You can get some stunning views of the port from this end of town.

Even though the weather is still dull.

Internet Câfé Picorette, 24 Rue Saint-Sauveur 50400 Granville.

La Courtine creperie, Granville –

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/MobileQueryBBox-g951898-d4334052-La_courtine-Granville_Manche_Basse_Normandie_Normandy.html

Walking without a donkey: France 5

Saint Martin de Bréhal to Granville 5.5.17 11 kms 2.5 hrs

I left the Camping de la Vanlée before 8am to find breakfast. I had given no Shiatsu and hoped that that would give me time to write the night before, but I was too tired after the walk and all that fresh air.

After the howling wind interrupted my repose, now there was the soothing sound of the waves, a man trying to start his boat motor after tractoring it backwards into the water, and the odd seagull. It was cold though.

Grey pointed rooves and white walls are typical of the architecture along this part of the coast. There are huge rocks along the landward edge of the beach and I can already see Granville, a much bigger town, coming into sight. Hmm, hungry!

’Attention un viper’ said a hennaed woman with an alsatian. ‘I want to see one’, I thought, eyes to the ground, but no.

Soft grasses, swooping swifts, watching the horses on the beach, and hearing the tiny chuck chucking bird sounding the alarm as it hovers with wings going 100s of flaps to the minute.


On I walked, my knee complaining again. What does it do, I ask myself? It makes me pay attention to how I step, how my weight is distributed.


People warned me it would not be the same walking the second time (after the Camino Francés, Via de la Plata, and Sierra Calderona in Spain), and they were right of course: I have changed; I have reflected; written about my experiences; and integrated many of them. The pleasure is equal, however.


Kids are rock-pooling, there are colourful beach huts, and many people stop and ask about me and what I am up to, as I enter Granville. I regard a man taking advantage of the breeze, and flying a kite in figures of eight.

The swimming pool amongst the rocks on the edge of the sea is deserted at this hour. There are steep green cliffs with a beach at the bottom. As I climbed, I inadvertently entered a cemetery with great views across the bay. Huge mausoleums and ancient crosses are all crowded together.


I turn right on the outskirts of the town, getting accustomed to the traffic noise, and a house straight out of ‘Madeline’, a book by Ludwig Bemelmans (and film), which I shared with my daughters when they were young.

Then I saw a sign which I spontaneously followed to the Jardin (garden) de Christian Dior. I sat in the sun (and wind), shut my eyes and listened to the water, and to a particularly tuneful chanteuse (bird!). I smell the roses, and imagine that my walking baton is an elegant cane and I am strolling in my couture garments in the 1950’s.

Dior had a life shorter than mine has already been, and this gorgeous place captured my imagination. (See below for ticket information).


It turns out that the walk I am on, ‘mon chemin’, actually passes through the garden, though I had lost it and only come on a whim!

There are wonderful views from the Dior gardens.

Back down at sea level there is a hideous casino – how do town planners allow these buildings?

I suppose the casino has a sort of gothic (as in bell tower with bats) air about it.

The Hotel de Jeunesse is hard to find and shuts for a long lunch. The woman was brusque, but kindly phoned through to other places for me as it was a holiday weekend, though everywhere was full.

I had a room to myself, and was forced to stay a second night, which of course turned out to be propitious as the next day it poured with rain.

There are no shortage of municipal toilets here – I could have relieved myself at every corner!

Fetchingly decorated loos at Museum.

I recommend the Café Pulperia in an attractive row of shops etc very close to the hostel – the crab salad was in a plastic pot but it, the wine, and the fresh fruit salad were all delicious (€11) and I sat for ages with the wifi. There is also an Internet café next door which I spent hours in the next day (writing out of the rain).

I wander up to a church I can see.  A nice woman walks up the hill with me and tells me walking is good for the heart. Unfortunately the Eglise Saint Paul is, like many I tried to visit this month, shut for repairs.


You can buy anything you want here in the busy shopping steets, with so many cars, and pretty corners. I find a public park, Les Jardins, with llamas, peacocks, chickens, goats, and 2 black swans each on one leg, all happily coexisting.

My late afternoon walk takes me to the old town at the far side and up steep steps. The buildings are worth seeing as is the Modern Art Museum,  a collection of books and art work with visiting exhibitions.

From landscape painting,
to original essays gifted to the collector.
From Rodin,
and Colette.

I walked back via the port.

And here are a few extra photos to persuade you that Granville and the surrounding area are well worth visiting.

I was walking GR223 Normandy coastal walk.

Camping de Vanlées – Rue des Gabions – 50290 BREHAL Tél. : 02 33 61 63 80 / Mail : camping.vanlee@wanadoo.fr

Two of the outdoor spaces at the Jardin de Christian Dior.

If you want to visit Dior’s garden, it is free. If you would like to see the house (and there is a charming tea garden), you can get free access to it if you pay to visit the Modern Art Museum, or vice versa.

Walking without a donkey: France 4

Regnéville to Saint Martin 4.5.17 19kms 6hrs. Part of the GR223 Sentiers des Dounaniers (see La Manche tourist website).

I relished the good political talk with Sophie last night by the fire, admired the pretty beams and attention to detail in her interior, and loved the simplicity of unrolling the futon for Shiatsu on the sitting room floor – it is such a great way to communicate with kind others. I slept in another comfy bed, with a great shower, and we drank wine together.

Outside the cottage window there is a blackbird’s nest, and we spied on them in the morning before I left to walk to Saint Martin. Regnéville is a very pretty village and I traversed it twice because I left my baton behind the first time!


It is 8.25 and all is soft and verdant in the morning, misty light. The places which were rubbed yesterday (mostly my shoulders where the rucksack straps are) feel tired.  There are lots of fleeting pains as I begin. Ah yes, I remember that happens as I begin day 2.


Cuttlefish are daubed amongst the detritus from the sea; birds are collecting bits and pieces for their homes; stationery, white cows are initially silent.

It is really calm: there are so many distinctive bird voices, one or two cars, and now the cows are lowing, but no people. Instead I am having conversations with loved ones in my head. It is when there is external quiet that I can hear their voices answering my questions.

A cuckoo calls, a blue tit balances sideways on a reed. Birds of prey instead of airplanes, hovver with their magnificent eyesight. There is the ‘chack chack’ of the chaffinch, and then I remember the prediction of the Tarot before I left: a person about to walk on sand – of course, a beach, not a desert, although then it comes to me that I will visit a ‘desert’ in a few days time.

Around the corner is the beach and a dog rolls happily. School kids draw circles and collect seaweed, stones and shells to decorate them with. I realise that 99% of the joint pain I had when I left Scotland has gone.

There is the yummy odour of hot coffee and bread as I pass through Briqueville sur Mer, and a sweet, sweet smell as I then enter an avenues of trees.

Fields of potatoes are on one side, and banks of wild flowers, not unlike those I am familiar with in Kent, on the other.

I enjoy the long, sandy drives, the oniony leeks growing, and the ripples of white fleece lifted by the breeze protecting a crop I cannot see.

 

Fields of perfect lettuces

I make quite a big mistake then, walking on without seeing any way-signs. I went back to ask a man working his plot, and he confirmed I was right, but at the next junction I was pretty sure I was not, so back I went again. Bless him, he came after me, thinking I had misunderstood his French, but in fact he had told me where the road was and not the ‘chemin’. I stopped then for lunch,  disappointed and frustrated, but the spot was so beautiful, and as I restocked, I knew that that attitude is useless: when I walk I get there when I do. That is just that.

In the caravan place I pass I glimpse a couple through the window. He reads the paper and she writes postcards. There are questions from others as I go on my way: ‘toute seule?’ ‘Without your husband?’ I think I must be quite unusual walking like this on my own in these out-of-the-way places.

A beach stretches into the distance, and there are more children, this time pushing each other in go-karts. A horse rider trots past, speaking on his mobile phone. I spot a white heron, or at least I think that is what it is, and later there is a sign, ‘heronerie’.

Horse rider in the distance
Go-karts lined up

I really struggled to find somewhere to sleep that night. It is surprising that the La Manche tourist board recommends stages / études which have no hostels, only hotels and expensive (though lovely looking) bed and breakfasts. Reader, it is, sadly, twice as expensive to walk in France as it is in Spain. I considered bringing a tent, but was assured camping was forbidden and was not confident enough to chance it.

So I found a very expensive bed (€30) at a campsite that had no cafe, shop, kitchen, or laundry facilities. I was not impressed. I walked quite a way into the village, on the advice of the kind receptionist, but there was no food to be had anywhere in the evening, so I contented myself with lunch left-overs. The wind howled all night, and tried very hard to lift the tent off the ground.

My bed in the tent.
And the tent itself.

La Manche website http://www.manche-tourism.com/gr223-coastal-path

Walking without a donkey: France 3

Agon-Coutainville to Regnéville 3.5.17 22kms approx. 8 hrs.

Gallette and cider – last night’s meal.
View from my bedroom window at Agon-Coutainville.
Goodbye to Carla and Nicholas, the Tsubook couple.

I leave Agon-Coutainville at 9.15am and it is quiet as I make my way along the promenade. There is the sound of my feet, and of the sea in the distance. It is low tide and there is a smell of seaweed.

Along the promenade the evening before I leave Agon-Coutainville.

The air is cool on my skin, and I am getting into a rhythm, with a dull, white-grey sky overhead; and swirls of brown, shining water with almost yellow sand to my right. In contrast are the massive stones nearby where they are fortifying the sea wall. It is ‘home from home’ really, reminiscent of Edinburgh / Scotland.

Can you see Nicholas hiding? Also taken the day before.

It is the beginning of this new walking meditation, with lighthouses on both edges of my peripheral vision. There’s a man with a cigar between his lips, his dog trotting along in a blue harness; clear instructions on a municipal sign not to collect too many shellfish and to beware of the right season / size when you do; and a bike cycling over the do not cycle sign.

Quite dull, the day I set out.

‘Doucement’ (gently) says a woman to her wolfhound. There are 100’s of child sounds, like a grounded flock of seagulls, who turn out to be from a sailing school, with its neon orange and white sails.

Sailing school, children playing.

Now the thumb of one hand is hot and the other cold. I think it is something about the details I notice when I am walking.

Historical photo of children on the beach in 1956.

Snippets of my bad dream come in and out of my head. Worries: Will my knees hold out? Is my backpack too heavy? But then it is like someone is holding my hand once again, and I remember this.

The sun starts to come out.

I wasted 10 minutes looking for someone to ask the way. Note to self: look with more care and if in doubt, keep going forward!

As I cross the dunes, a horse and rider cross my path. It’s the first time I have seen someone on his mobile while riding! It is slow walking on deep sand with the smell of the cyprus (or cedar?) trees, and the sounds of crows cawing. The sun is trying to come out, and it is windy. Once again I am reminded of home, this time the links at Gullane.

More detail now I am getting into my stride: a snail precarious on a stalk of grass; swifts or swallows darting across my vision; hearing a cuckoo. There are so many familiar flowers from hillside and garden: brambles, buttercups, veitch, and the sweetest smelling hawthorn, which I suspect is the scent that, in years to come, will take me back to Normandy.

The sweet smell of may. 

There is a bird with equally sweet tweets, intermittently, above my head; and very very loud crickets (or grasshoppers?) which are competing with the chattering mini birds.

The ‘randonnée’ signs I am starting to get familiar with – sometimes tricky to spot.

At the Pointe d’Agon, one rather slow hour later,  there is a soft brown bird with white stripes which flies 360 degrees around me at eye level – you know, those birds which do little, repeated, staccato swoops.

A memorial to the young men lost in the war.

Tightening the straps to stop them chaffing my shoulders, I stride on, fire-engine-siren bird calls to my right;
neat turf, wet to kneel on; and uneven pits of soft-sand bunkers. The world seems to be all a-tweet and I think to myself, I could walk along here like this forever.

The sweet almond scent is continuing to surprise me if I am looking down. A bird whistles at me, challengingly, through an avenue of pines. I can feel my tummy relax.

An oval of standing stones, a modern sculpture.

There are not many insects compared to all the birds: a wispy white flying something, a stubby black fluffy caterpillar, but not much else.

One of the many lighthouses. This one on the edge of the main estuary between Agon and Regnéville.

When I am amongst the trees I can hear the wind, but not otherwise. Here begins the long sweep around the bay, and I could do with a cup of tea.

One of the many attractive signs to help you position yourself.

The tide is way out, so there are beached boats balancing on their rudders; sharp marine grass; and broken shells underfoot. Buttercups totter in the cold windyness. I hear a distant church bell and smell the sheep as they say ‘huh huh huh’.

These signs are getting familiar and give quite accurate indications of distance and time between stages.

Here are the first group of fellow ramblers/randonneurs coming in the opposite direction. In all my walks to Mont-Saint-Michel I do not see a single other backpacker.

This poster shows the different sorts of shellfish.

Washes of miniature, dead crabs, and piles of oyster shells litter the path. Fields of broadbeans are beside me. At noon there is finally sun and butterfly #1.

Now there is a gorgeous odour of cow parsley, scuttling spiders on the clay, and pods of empty cells the size of my hand -dry and papery. Ah, I am stiff now, tireder, and assailed by the smell of dung!

Crossing La Sciene river, after 3 hrs, and a most welcome cuppa (I will come clean: I had to go back for my baton), I then realised my beloved Coquille Saint Jaques shell had broken off and gone forever, but I was given an alternative by the kind hostellier at La Bonne Auberge at the same moment.

I cross and skirt around the mouth of the Est. Pass Tourville sur Siene, and there is a stretch of long wet grass with a very narrow gulley to walk in. Here I suffer my first fall – I think I topple because I am hungry.

Flat, white-ended little birds are bounding through the reeds like rabbits. Carla’s delicious sourdough pizza is a welcome mid-day lunch in the sun.

Now it is time to get the pole out and I hope there are no tics. Yes of course I am lying in my bra – there is no-one for miles around and I am sure I need the money vitamin D.

Hidden by the grass

After my sunbathe when I watch the art-deco black and white butterfly (symbol of transformation), I feel re-energised, taste some wild garlic, help myself to a leaf of wild mint, chew a sprig of fennel (to remind me of last year’s Camino), and enjoy the church with a cock in top.

The lilac and honeysuckle are both out, but the map showed I was actually in the sea, and I started to feel lost. It is now extremely wet underfoot. The smartly coutured ducks cheer me up,  but there is a lot of improvising having to go on on these wetlands.

Nature is wonderful isn’t it? I spot urea coloured dungflies blending in. And there’s time to reflect: it turns out I forget what I have said quite often, though I hear myself denying that I have ; and of course, I realise once again that I have absolutely no idea of the future and how it will turn out.

By 4.30 I am so stiff and glad to arrive at Regnéville. Last night I searched Shiatsu practitioners in Normandy. The lovely Sophie Blondel was at the top of the list and miraculously lived at my next day’s stopping place. I phoned her on the off-chance ( in French btw!) and not only did she pick up the phone,  but she immediately said yes I could come and stay with her in return for Shiatsu.

So that’s what I did. What a star. How amazing to be the sort of person who just says ‘yes’! We had the best evening, what with the session, chats about our work (turns out we share the same teacher in Suzanne Yates), and her adorable cottage.

Walking without a donkey: Paris 2

27 – 30 April

28.4.17 Walk Villa Sainte Croix to Musée Eugene Délacroix

Isabelle’s lovely flower display

Whilst in Paris I was living with the generous Isabelle; Shiatsu practitioner, mother, and overall fantastic woman. Both she and youngest daughter, Isobel, recommended that I visit the Musée Eugene Delacroix, so today’s walk is from the north of Paris to the Left Bank.

Paroisse Saint Michel

I first traipsed up Saint Ouen and took a detour to Place Saint-Jean to see the striking St Michel church. Back around the corner I spotted the familiar French phrase cut in stone: liberty, egality,  fraternity.

Next was the shopping street of Avenue de Clichy selling espadrilles for €6 (I hope I did not make a mistake deciding not to buy a pair). I was once more walking, without my rucksack this time, through bright sun at 12.45 and after a frustrating morning trying to move money, my feet were once again on the ground.

I could feel myself slowing and calming. My spirit was easing. Now I was starting to enjoy my surroundings so that when a gentleman saw me taking a photo of motos and flowers and asked me if I was interested, I could answer in French in a relaxed sort of way.

I am reminded that I have everything I need here. I reassure myself, all is fine, yes, everything is going to be fine. There are lots of people sleeping rough on the streets of Paris, even a woman with three small children. How lucky I am in comparison.

As always, when I walk, my loved ones come to mind, and as I can not afford to buy and carry all the presents I might like to for them, I decide to take photos instead and send those.

At least they will know I am thinking about them: an umbrella with the Eiffel Tower on it in the Galeries Lafayette (when I go in for the toilet) for one daughter, a collection of pretty things for the other, delicate white porcelain for my sister, Tin Tin paraphernalia, eye-catching graffiti.

For Alice

On the Rue de Clichy there’s a bar (or is it a pub?) called The Coq et Bulldog, presumably representing a good French /British relationship.

In Trinité there are restaurants from all over, and a grand church covered with scaffolding overseeing a park where people are eating lunch between kisses.

Every cafe is completely full of working lunchers sitting outside in the welcome sun.

As yesterday, I am constantly moving from local area to posh one, to steets which are run-down. The Galeries Lafayette department store is simply enormous. The Opéra is stunning.

I usually prefer small, independent cafés, but today I know I can rely on Starbucks where my phone’s wifi will be recognised without having to enter a password, plus I will be able to charge it, and sit for as long as I like to write. I am grateful to have this time.

It rains! Nay, it pours, as I traverse the Pont du Carousel, walk beside the Seine, and there is a book seller straight from the film Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen.

Square Gabriel-Pierné
Square Honoré Champion

Musee Eugene Delacroix is just great. I really liked the juxtaposition of a gladiator floored by a lion, and three studies of cats lying down!

ED himself
Garden of the Eugene Delacroix museum

Later I lounged in the beautiful garden, shut my eyes, enjoyed the scents of roses and listened to the bees by my ear. I breathed out relaxedly. There are purple periwinkle, geraniums, yellow wallflowers and white honesty. Lovers wandered just like they are supposed to do, speaking each other’s languages.

Rue Mazarine, wisteria
Institut de France
You know where, in the rainy background

Today I make sure I am back for dinner on time.

Typical view of the Seine. Getting dark as I walk back.

Walking without a donkey: Paris 1

April 27 – 30 2017

Walk 1: Gare de Lyon to Villa Sainte Croix. 7kms 27.4.17

I arrived in Paris in the late afternoon after a soothing flight direct from Edinburgh. The security there was very trying: I rarely fly and so every time I do the rules have changed. It became apparent that you now have to fit all your fluids into one tiny plastic bag which has to be sealed. This meant I had to ditch several newly-purchased items, and if I ever have to hear that woman calling out to us ‘guys’ about these frustrating rules again, I think I might scream!

Impressively shiny public conveniences, quite different from the smelly ‘hole in the ground’ I was obliged to use later in my journey.

At Charles de Gaules, I was reminded how silly it is to change money at the airport because of the dreadful exchange rate, but I liked the clean, pink toilets – much better than any public ones in the UK.

After much deliberation, and a pleasantly warm sunbathe (yes, I am sorry reader, I rolled up my trousers (my daughter’s trousers) but drew the line at stripping down to my bra), I took the bus to Gare de Lyon (€18), and started my first walk across the city to the north.

There is a gorgeously lush clock tower at Gare de Lyon (67m high) with its pale blue clock face, smooth, grey-domed top part, and decorated within an inch of its life (no photo).

I love the Paris architecture in the evening sunshine

Remember to look left before I step out onto the cycle paths, I told myself, as I automatically looked right and narrowly avoided a fleet of commuter bikes.

Colonne de Juillet, Place de la Bastille

There are massive statues standing at the junction between each step of this walk: Places des République and Bastille, for example.

Place de la République

The corner cafés, familiar from so many movies, were filling up with after-work drinkers. It was becoming a fine evening – large groups of men were playing boules; fashionable guys riding mopeds were zooming in and out of the traffic and sliding to conspicuous halts in front of giggly groups of girls; stylish kids were streaming out of school in the weak sunshine; and of course there were traffic hold-ups contributing to the poor city air condition.

Typical corner cafe – it was not actually this dark.

I particularly enjoyed walking along Avenue Deaumesnil, with its charming under-arches embroidery and fabric boutiques, art school, and book shops.

Avenue Deaumesnil
Book shop

Walking on, I was surprised that I was not struggling at all with my large back pack after 5 months break from carrying it.

Two women playing table tennis.

I came to the Place de la République with open-air table tennis and gangs of scateboarders extraordinaire. They performed their tricks with a nonchalant air, as soon as they knew I was watching, eager for an audience.

My tummy was rumbling as I approached Gare de L’est, so I tried out my French by buying that lovely sort of bread which is cool in your mouth and has air holes. I had to open the cheese packet with my teeth because of course you can not bring a knife to France on the plane.

Saint Laurent church, 10th arrondissement.

At Barbés there were peanuts for sale, fresh garlic, and limes. The people sharing the pavements with me looked as if they might well have been doing dodgy deals. There were potentially dangerous disputes erupting at every turn. There was a wonderful array of restaurants from around the world, and I could have very easily have exchanged all sorts of things, bought a cheap phone or a yam, or got hair extensions.

Cirque d’Hiver

And then, a few paces on, I segue into a new area and I am amongst a different type of pedestrian. It is now quiet, no excitable voices, the women wear red lipstick, and their heels clack on the tarmac.

Great art deco-type decoration on this Louxor Palais du Cinéma, Boulevard de Magenta.

At Monmartre there’s a man living in a tent on a roundabout. The sweet odours of the May 1st holiday posies of lillies of the valley are everywhere, as are the police and their guns, presumably as a result of all the recent (terrorist?) troubles.

Gare de L’est, getting darker.

Time is passing. It’s starting to get dark My frequent photo stops, memo writing, and Google map consulting has somehow extended the predicted 1.5 hours to 5, and I am grateful that my hosts are understanding when I roll up really late. There’s a meal waiting, wine on the table, and much kindness directed my way.