Friday 7th August
Carol clearly not well so took her to the GP. She knew she had a blood infection because this happened 2 years ago. Both her kidney consultant and our GP are on hols. Came away with a letter to admit her to St James’s via A&E. She slept most of the way. Terrible access at A&E so I had to say goodbye to her in the car park. Went and finished off at work then home for last bits of packing. C insisted I continue with my holiday but it felt odd and a bit crap. She got IV antibiotics started up that evening.
Saturday 8th August
Woke at 4.50 a.m. My taxi arrived early (good job as they never turned up for my trip to Hadrian’s Wall). As I got out at the station I realised I’d left my phone on charge. Luckily I’d allowed loads of time in case the taxi cocked up so we raced back and I picked it up, also turned a light off!
After that all the trains were ok until Nimes. My first time at St. Pancras International. Very busy and airport like. Picked up all my remaining tickets for the trip. After composting my ticket I got a rigorous twice over at security. British passport control then French.
Sat next to an Irish woman who talked the entire way to Paris to her pal. I think she was either a lawyer or an accountant. Some very interesting insights into Kids’ Co., charities and corruption. So interesting I stopped reading!
Paris was warm and smelly and the Metro to the Gare du Lyon even warmer and smellier but mercifully quick.
I’d bought my tickets for the Metro on Eurostar which helped. A wee for 80 cents and my hall of departure had changed by the time I came out. I passed a man with a foot long lizard in a cat box, then 2 separate women with cats in cat boxes who all got onto my train. Also a great many children in a chaperoned party were getting into my carriage but they were down and I was up on the double decker train. Air con, a seat to myself and I was whizzing through the flatlands of grain production for all those baguettes. Lots of water towers. A dull day weather wise.
Less than an hour from Paris the plains give way to forested undulations. Contours at last! Horses, Charolais cows. A bit of wet.
Train stopped at Valence and I thought of beds. Then Nimes.
A passenger required medical attention so we stopped for 50 mins. I had only 30 mins to make my connection from Montpellier. But on arrival in Montpellier there were no more trains to Toulouse. After much too rapid French I found they were trying to get me into a hotel in Montpellier! I explained I had to be in Toulouse at 10 in the morning so the controller got me a taxi to get me to the 10 pm train from Narbonne. Ok but it takes 1 hr 15 mins and we only had 45 mins. He tried. It was dark, wet and we shot along the motorway pushing other cars off the road. The driver fiddled with his phone all the way and all to the accompaniment of first bad rap, second football on the radio at way too many decibels. I asked him to go more slowly and not to use phone to no avail. No train waiting for me at Narbonne so the controller there filled a paper form in triplicate for my taxi to take me to Toulouse. He told me there were no hotels free in Narbonne, just as well because it wasn’t my plan to stay there either. I arrived in Toulouse only 1 hr 40 mins after the train would have! Despite being a menace to life the driver carried my bag, asked if I was ok and took me to my hotel (he was only authorised to take me to the station) and spoke a little English. I found it hard to do fast French and speak French very well under stress.
Hotel Mermoz lovely. Fell into bed with 2 paracetamols. It cost me £25 and some Avios I collected.
Sunday 9th August
After breakfast I checked out and walked 10 minutes to the railway station. Francois who is the guide for the week picked me up and drove me to Ax les Thermes. About 2 hours drive. Vast swathes of sunflowers being grown. I checked into La Grande Cordee. My room is in the annexe which is at the back on the 2nd floor away from the quite busy road. It’s plain but comfortable.
I went into the town, bought bottled water and had a look round. Most things shut because it was Sunday. Back with the heavy water (not the bomb making sort) then out again to do a self guided walk of the town and all the hot springs and spas. The water goes up to 74C in temp. Very, very hot just coming out of fountains and making steam as it flows into the river. It’s not used for hot water for the inhabitants because there isn’t enough pressure but they do use it to keep the roads and pavements clear of snow.
A demi pression and back to the hotel for the meeting of the group with Francois. We are 14. There are 2 other groups staying. Some of them haven’t read the instructions and don’t have boots, waterproofs or rucksacks. Francois directed them to the shops!
Dinner of salad with duck in it. Then duck kebab with roast spuds and ratatouille. I have an omelette as not keen on duck. Bread and wine. I pass on the creme brûlée although my favourite as have decided to quit refined sugar where possible. Ha bloody ha!
There is a man on the next table who looks like he’s stepped out of a Tintin story, he is short and plump, has a bald head, sideburns and a splendid moustache like the Thompson Twins and a beard.
Monday 10th August
7.30 Breakfast of bread, cheese, croissant and coffee. The French are drinking huge bowls of coffee. I had forgotten this.
Set off at 8.45 in minibuses. Quite cool. Francois drove us a few kilometres up out of Ax to the Col du Chioula. We stop 1.5k past it at a big junction of paths at 1360m. Climb up to Rocher de Scaramus at 1868m. Gascon cattle, black Merens horses, goats, a marmot, griffon vultures and a bearded vulture. The bearded vultures need 500 sq km to lord over. Lovely walk with long lunch. Lentil salad in our boxes. Francois produced sausage, cheese, wine and coffee out of his bag! Cheese was lovely. Lots of info re geology and history. 8 or 9km. Followed it all on the map.
Back at 4.30. Into town but the thermal baths were very busy so I went for beer instead. Also I was hot enough.
Back at the hotel I rang Carol who says she will be in hospital for 5 weeks. Bugger.
Dinner of gazpacho with cheesy thing, salmon bake and apple pie. Very nice and yes I broke my resolution! After this holiday then!
Tuesday 11th August
Col de Pailheres 1965m
Pic de Tarbezou. GR78. 2340m
Another lovely day. Francois drove us to the col and we climbed the peak. Fabulous 360 degree views across the whole Pyrenean range. Saw a royal eagle AKA golden eagle. Also griffon vultures. Down 200m to one of 4 lakes for lunch of tabbouleh, bread, cheese. We were with the other group most of the time. David the other group leader asked me to spot from the back for a while. They all know I am ML in the UK.
It was very hot so I stayed off the wine. It was still hard to get back up the 200m.
F explained about peat bogs – tourbe and tourbiere. I told him about sphagnum moss as a WW1 wound dressing from Dartmoor.
The group is made up of 5 married couples and 4 solo people. Mostly professionals. Lawyer, marketing consultant, research doctor, state psychologist.
I went to the thermal baths in all the rooms. All the names are in Latin just like at Hard Knot fort but without the Lake District weather!
Beer at different bar and getting more expensive every day!
Dinner of Greek salad with yoghurt, tartiflette – potato with jambon and cheese, tartelette au citron.
Slide show from F with pics of bears, wolves, foxes, deer, pine marten. Who knew that these are related to bears?
Late to bed at 11pm.
Wednesday 12th August
F drove us to Merens-les-Vals where he lives and parked outside his house. The walk was up through the forest for 700 m so at least in the shade but steep in parts. We collected dry beech wood on the way. Came out to a pasture with a shepherd’s hut/refuge/bothy at the Col de Joux at 1702m. A large herd of cows with bells and 2 big bugger bulls on the col.
F and David quickly got the fire going. We handed over our potatoes in foil already cooked so just for warming. Tomato salad to start, bread, baked potato, sausage like a Cumberland sausage in shape ,melted Camembert a bit strong for me so F gave me the mountain cheese we’ve been eating. Then cep mushrooms collected by Guy who is mushroom expert but who doesn’t eat them! And a little chocolate. And wine.
Then back down on the GR 107 to Merens. Saw a lizard. Lots of grasshoppers or are they crickets?
Out for a beer by the fountain, the most expensive so far.
Back for dinner – starter of green salad with cooked meats. I didn’t fancy cod so had a nice garlicky creamed spinach with carrots and Bulgur wheat. Choc dessert.
Valerie and I went into town to see a live street performance. Funny.
Thursday 13th August
Out at 8.30 on foot to see the Vierge and then a circular tour of the villages around Ax because lots of thunder and at one point it went very dark and then rained a lot for a little while. A very humid day. I ended up as wet as Bruce doing a show.
Lunch of tuna, rice, sweet corn, chick peas salad, bread, cheese, wine by the side of the path.
Back early. Out to look at shops. Beer in square. Marie-Odile joined me. Grimbergen for me and Cro Mignon a local bottled beer for her.
Dinner of tomato pastry, duck on menu again so they gave me vegetable quiche without egg, green beans and cheesy pasta followed by tiramisu but lovely, usually I don’t like it.
The group is made up professionals and retired people. Pascale is a painter and has painted rooms for a prince of Saudi Arabia and Yves St Laurent. Janine was a nurse. Valerie is a psychologist. Marie-Odile is research doctor into organisations management. These are the people I’ve had the most conversations with in our Franglais.
Friday 14th August
Just a croissant and a small bowl of granola with yoghurt and apple for breakfast.
Raining a lot so off in the minibus to Merens-les-Vals. Through the village, off the main road, past the municipal camping and up up up to park the minibus. Adrien a trainee mountain leader joined us. I talked to him a bit.
We went up 300m to the Etang de Comte (de Foix) but it was foggy and wet. We could have been in Scotland or Wales. We stopped at the black horses on the way, 2 of them belong to Francois, one is an old girl of 28 and the other is 16. He put down salt for them to supplement their diet. We only stayed out for 4 hrs as so wet.
Back to the hotel to change and eat our picnic at the table. Pasta salad, bread, wine, cheese. And a slice of chicken.
I nearly fell asleep but decided not to waste my time so set off for the telepherique. €7 for aller et retour. I went up to the station and chatted to a French couple on the way.
Tried to find the first path down but it was overgrown. Aimed for the second and found it. Mainly a bike route so very steep and muddy in parts with deep channels, hard work. Got down 700m and back to the hotel in 2 hours.
Very glad I am now a lot more fit and a lot more confident in navigating and in walking. The overall level of the walks we did were not anything I wouldn’t have attempted solo at home so I didn’t really need a guide however Francois did give the added history and information about the Ariege, the Pyrenees that I would have found it harder to obtain, plus it was quite fun being amongst a very French experience. He also made the walks fun and interesting. I would love to do the International Mountain Leader but it’s expensive and would take up an awful lot of time that I don’t have at the moment. And there are probably some other skills that I might struggle with.
I got down from my shower to find our group had gathered with complimentary peach wine, goats cheese nibbles and olives and Tacos. Francois forgot to tell me but it was ok. It was the only major thing he forgot to translate for me. I will forgive him because he is normally so charming!!
Dinner, toast with strong garlic spread and Italian type ham, dish like bouillabaisse without rice and with fish, mussels, chorizo, pimentos. Tasty. Discovered that mussels are ok! Chocolate muffin which was a bit heavy.
Lots of kissing because most are leaving tomorrow. Janine threw herself into this activity!
Lovely people and lovely time.
Saturday 15th August
The large group of cyclists who arrived yesterday made a huge amount of noise at 2.30 in the morning. I couldn’t get back to sleep so read my book.
Thankfully they were only here for the night. I hope they all fall off their bikes and get punctures. They broke the lift and knocked over all the plant pots. I gave one of them the filthiest look I could manage. All our party was displeased with them. Selfish load of louts we think from Holland. Farewell to most of the party.
Marie-Odile and I walked along the Oriege to Orlu and then the Forge d’Orlu to the Maison des Loups. Saw a group of 4 Arctic wolves, a group of 7 Euro wolves and some cubs hiding behind a tree. They got fed raw chicken. Also it’s a family farm so there are chickens, sheep, goats, kids, piglets in close proximity.
We had lunch in the cafe at the park. M-O had cheese salad and I had cheese and mixed meats salad. Very good.
Then walked back to Ax, total of 18km or 11 miles.
On return M-O found she had lost her wallet portefeuille but luckily it was in the cafeso they rang her. The hotel then lent her their car so she could collect it. Very worrying for her. But great that it worked out ok.
I bought some bread, cheese, tomato for my lunch the next day.
Later met up with M-O for dinner. We went to a quiet, calm, small resto called L’Aparte.
Cold beetroot soup, excellent light courgette tarts with salad, lovely small choc pud. Quarter bottle of white wine. Great idea, just the right amount.
Very pleasant evening. I think we were both tired because we both tried hard to communicate in French and English.
Sunday 16th August
Breakfast and farewell to Marie-Odile. I finished squashing my gear into the 80l holdall from KE Adventures which I then strapped to its folding wheels/trolley. Mathieu picked me up at 11 and drove me back to Toulouse railway station. He was very interesting to listen to (he spoke a lot of English) and told me all about being a Mountain Leader in France, being an avalanche rescue person with an avalanche rescue dog and ski patroller. All sounds a lot harder and more intense than our awards which were not a walk in the park.
I put the holdall into the left luggage at Toulouse, got bossed around by a rather strict woman there. Then off to Tourist Info. I decided to buy a 24hr City Pass which covered all transport and some attractions. Straight onto the Metro, then onto a tram which I got off at the stop I’d been told to. Thank goodness for Google maps as it was the wrong stop. I walked for a hot 15 mins and arrived at the Roman Amphitheatre. It’s been restored using the famous pink Toulouse bricks. Did the Romans have these? I sort of doubt it but I may be doing them a disservice. Anyway there’s not much there apart from some old obviously Roman stones and big hole. There’s a copy of a statue of Minerva and some picnic tables. I sat at one in the shade and ate my provisions purchased the evening before. Very pleasant.
Then back to the centre on the tram and Metro. I got off near to the river and headed for the Bateaux Toulousains. They told me to come back a little later so I ate an ice cream from a boy with a bicycle powered wagon and then got in the queue. I wanted to be sure to get under the awning for some shade on the boat. I managed to sit near the speaker so was well blasted for the next hour and a quarter, nowhere else to go as the boat was full. The commentary bore very little relation to the English translation sheet I was given, which also bore little relation to English like what she is spoke! The trip was a bit dull, the Pont Neuf was really the highlight. We went into an old lock, out again, along a bit, turned round and then back through the lock. The main landmarks are at a distance from the Garonne. But it kept me cool for a while. There was a man living in a tent by the side of the canal.
I popped into the Jacobins convent which was especially huge as had no furniture in it. Lots of light. Glorious building.
Then went to find a beer and settled for a Kronenbourg. Wandered round a bit more looking for a corner shop. Phone call to Carol then decided to have a salad in the Van Gogh restaurant with real linen. It was very nice and I’m glad I did. Set off for the station, stopping to buy a couple of provisions for the night. Collected my holdall, scary woman no longer there. Waited for a while. Got onto train, I was first into my compartment. Turned down the heating controls. First problem there is nowhere to put a big holdall, definitely won’t fit under bunk 1 of 3. No room in bike store as full of bikes. Shove it down the end of my bunk thus reducing the space for me. 4 other women turned up eventually and everyone just said “Bonsoir” and that was it. Someone turned the light out and shut the door. Very limited headroom so hard to undress but so hot I took my top off. Felt terribly squashed. All the others had done the same with their bags. At some point later another person joined us. Later still someone opened the door and shut it from outside for no particular reason. Then I got cold so put my shirt back on, then colder so actually got into the sleeping bag thing. Gave up at about 6a.m. and got dressed and up. Train arrived at Paris Austerlitz at 6.50. In 1942, Jews in Paris were rounded up and taken from Austerlitz to Auschwitz. This is video of sleeping compartment from the website I used to plan the trip, the Man in Seat Sixty-One.
Monday 17th August
I got straight onto the Metro to the Gare du Nord just a few stops away. Went through passport control French, passport control UK, security and into the departure lounge thinking it would be like St. Pancras with shops and cafes but it wasn’t. I had a not nice espresso with a not nice croissant. And then found a nice espresso round the corner so had a second. Plugged in my phone, got in queue and onto Eurostar. Smooth journey to St. P. Across the street to King’s Cross and back to Leeds, then to Sowerby Bridge, then taxi home. Home by 2.30. Got myself a bit sorted and off to see Carol in St. James’s.
Please visit Map and Compass and learn how to interpret a map and use a compass with me and my navigation partner, Cath.