Monday, June 1, 2009

Vignettes - France and Spain

From Ann Tracey

May 2009

• Had forgotten how incredibly compact a French ensuite could be--push-button for a seven second shower in our third-rate Montmartre hotel, and didn’t see a soap shelf in any shower of the trip. Overall we had very economical, clean, convenient accommodation, thanks to Patricia’s research. Was awakened at 1am by a glorious operatic male voice singing in the street below--knew I wasn’t in Brisbane.
• The French are so proud of their heroes. I queued with them—no tourists—for a Town Hall exhibition on Gustave Eiffel and later walked to Victor Hugo’s home where all the visitors appeared to be French. Visited the cemetery kept for the famous – Pere LaChaise – where Frank and I had difficulty in narrowing our choice down to about ten, including Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Rossini. Monuments to Nazi victims were stark and emotive. Stayed on top of the Eiffel Tower for sunset at 9:15pm.
• Bought lunch at a modern eatery with an eating room upstairs for those who had lunch already with them – perhaps a bread roll saved from breakfast, and indeed the sign said “Bienvenus aux pains perdus” (Welcome to the lost bread rolls).
• The Pyrenees had had a bumper snow season – “une horreur” in the words of one local. As a result, the slatey-grey rivers were swollen and rushing with melted snow; the waterfalls were superb; and some of the passes and walks were still closed with snow. We tried to return from the Cirque de Gavarnie hotel by a mountain route, but had to retrace our steps because of the treacherous snow bridges over the streams--exciting, different walking. Col de Tourmalet barred our way, but we drove over the Col d’Aspin with slogans still evident from last year’s Tour de France—a thrill to see Cadell’s name still on the road surface in white paint. Had fabulous views from this superbly constructed road.
• Began the Camino de Compostela at Sarria, 112km from our destination, Santiago in NW Spain. The hard surfaces and our very full packs played havoc with our feet. I didn’t mind the smells of cow manure, rotting ensilage and fertilizers, and gained insights into the very labour-intensive methods on the farms we passed – very few young farmers in evidence. Saw the caps of encalypt blossoms on the path and looked up – yes there they were, our gum trees – imported to provide fast-growing hardwood. Some lovely oak woods made strolling through very pleasant, but too much civilization to contend with. Bikes passed us with no warning – no bells – and I was amused by the shaven legs and names on pants of one large group. The albergues were of great variety – the open showers in one mixed amenities block were a bit surprising to us oldies. (I was well and truly the oldest, but the other six were very tolerant and I usually forgot this fact.) This may be my last long walk carrying everything on my back and how wonderful they have all been!
• Took a bus from Santiago to Finisterre – the end of the Old World. Saw tiny plots of cultivation, some with lots of footprints indicating a lack of machinery and some on cliffs at the edge of the Atlantic. Stands of eucalypts were growing so close to the sea, (little salt spray?) and one cracked across road – think their brittleness and fire qualities may surprise. Some pilgrims were carrying out an ancient tradition by burning boots and items of clothing on the rocky extremity.

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