Budapest (2019)

There are many beautiful cities in the world. There are many pleasant cities in the world. And there are some efficient ones. Budapest seems to combine all of these aspects – I recommend it.

Budapest. A city of two halves. Buda contains the castle and some beautiful churches. It’s relatively quiet and residential.

From the castle in Buda there is a panorama of Pest, seen here at night where the Houses of Parliament are illuminated. The gothic buildings are wonderfully ornate.

By the castle lies the Fisherman’s Bastion, a complex stone carving next to the Hilton Hotel. The area around is filled with street performers such as a man with an eagle:

A man playing a stringless violin with a wooden spoon:

When his nose is pressed it makes the sound of a klaxon. When his right ear is tweaked, it squeaks – and the left ear brays like a donkey.

The castle walls are hugely popular with groups posing:

People take selfies.

An artist sells his wares:

And some of us marvel at the scenery:

Round the back of the castle there are pleasant walks and an altogether smaller scale arrangement of properties:

One of the oldest buildings in the old town is the Mary Magdalene Tower. Built in a gothic style it was destroyed during the invasion of 1945. It is now open to the public and offers panoramic views across to the Buda Hills.

It’s quite a climb to the castle – and the queue for the funicular painfully long and slow. We took a ‘city bus’,effectively a hop on hop off minibus. This was 8 euro each that was well spent.The final destination was thus museum.

These are possibly the largest statues I’ve ever seen.

The residential and office area behind is home to embassies and other institutions. I love the door furniture: And window boxes.

Anywhere that is 25 degree Celsius at the end of October has my vote.

And so a concert in the Matthias Church was a pleasure as we queued in the warmth of the evening (external picture taken during day).

The string orchestra played so well in one of the most beautifully decorated churches I have ever seen, as shown above.

But Budapest is not all high culture:

We resisted the apparently strong temptation to visit this place….which was next door to our AirBnb, shown here:

Ours was the first apartment on the right in this pic. It had everything we needed – and also a landlord who strongly encouraged us to drink Palinka (40 percent alcohol) chased by beer on arrival. He provided us with the obligatory shoes we required for the thermal baths. No real pics of this other than the entrance hall of the one (of severa which exist) that we visited. It was to say the least a surreal experience , speaking as one who often avoids the jacuzzi at the local gym. So many people. Such warm water. Such a sulphurous smell.

Budapest food is good.

The specialties are : langos, a kind of deep fried pizza base with a topping of your choice: and chimney cake…. a strip of dough wrapped round a wooden former and cooked in front of gas burners.

The completed article, sugar drenched, can be seen on the far side of the artisan. Frequently they are then filled with ice cream.

We ate these (langos, far too full for chimney cake) on the island in the Danube which is also home to a circus, a thermal bath, a Japanese garden, some ruins, a small zoo, a running track, a theatre …. and some superb fountains which pulsate to pre-programmed music every hour:

Meanwhile the children are entertained with bubbles:

There are some sombre areas in Budapest, such as the memorial to the 3 500 people, of which 800 Jews, who were lined up and shot on the banks of the Danube during 1944-5. Sixty pairs of time appropriate shoes have been cast and arranged on the Pest bank of the river. Many Jewish people visited the evening we were there.

The town has wonderful public transport and good markets:

And excellent coffee:

Definitely a place to visit.

Western Isles illustrated….Lewis and Harris

Our essential guide, long perused at home prior to trip, seemingly unpronounceable names tried out tentatively…….Steòrnabhagh, for example.

Made from whale ear drums:

Artefact in beautiful Stornoway ferry terminal.

Ferry to Skye, a little known route, world’s only turntable ferry.
Story of lost lives at sea …. Sheol an Olaire, sank on January 1 1919
And the memorial in Stornoway harbour. Each light represents one sailor.
Humour abounds.
Huge skies and empty beaches at Port Nis
And the Butt of Lewis, most northerly point in mainland Lewis , reportedly the windiest spot in the UK
Reinigeadal, isolated fishing community until recently only accessible by 5m cross country walk from Tarbert
Reinigdeal hostel. A delightful spot. Door unlocked.
And cosy as anything (once the fire’s lit). Fuel provided.
‘Taste ‘n’ Sea’. Roadside burger – and lobster and scallops- bar.
And the view whilst eating lunch.
One of 20 or so boxes of crabs at the tiny fishing port of Scalpay Island. Harvested Saturday. Newbury Berkshire by Monday. And then to Spain…
Off they go.
Half man, half crab.
Tourist information, Scalpay style.

The saddest playground ever?
Sunday morning Harris to Uist ferry – Tarbert to Lochmaddy. View from our hotel window.
Tarbert Harbour.
Really??!! Public loo in the Hebrides Hotel. Made me very nervous.
Bird watching at An Taobh Tuath (Northton) (and eagles circling overhead)
Truly, the geology is secondary only to New Zealand. Stunning.
Teaching grandson to sort (by gender and number of claws) crabs, at An t-Ob (Leverburgh, South Harris)
Last ferry of the day, Leverburgh, South Harris to Berneray, next Island down the archipelago.
En route the Eagle hide, Mhiagbhaig
The glen Miaghag, NorthHarris community owned estate.
Dropping down to Hùisinis beach. Cattle roaming quite free.
And very beautiful they are too.
Hùisinis beach.
Unusual architecture in a rocky barren land, site of former school.
Broadway Medical Practice, a tardis.
Wonderful waiting room sculptures.

Iceland Stornoway – poster in window from original Iceland – in OSWESTRY.
Stornoway harbour. It’s not by any means all rain. A lovely place to be.

Romania. The rest, minus the end.

So. Must be the altitude, or age, but the scheduled posts seem to have disappeared. So here’s a briefer recreation.

We’re 10. Five flautists, three saxophonists. Two friends.

We’re in the end of the end of a valley in Transylvania – Moiecu de Sus, just beyond Bran, site of Dracula’s castle (allegedly) (allegedly Dracula’s, definitely a castle,definitely surrounded by a lot of touristy shops, but beautiful in itself).

The travel from Bucharest, only 180km, took 10 hours. This was partly due to delays with getting the rental cars, but largely due to the extraordinary road/transport system.

Having encountered cyclists cycling down our lane- towards us-, flocks of animals, a donkey and cart careering perpendicularly from the right across the traffic, into the oncoming stream before joining us and so on and so forth- we thought we’d seen it all when cresting the brow of a short rise we came across a bilateral amputee in a self propelled wheelchair hurtling towards us.

The journey was not uneventful, the most exciting bit being when our driver decided that the traffic controller with a no entry sign and a red light ‘didn’t mean it’ leading to us driving directly towards a bus coming the opposite way.

This is our home for the next week.

Whoops! That’s Bran Castle.

Try again.

Julie and Nick who run the residential courses flutesenvacances are running their second week here, at this chalet. They provide half board and tuition on wind instruments.

(Julie standing)

A typical day : breakfast, practice in groups (Sax or flute) from 09.30 to 11.45, join into bigger group, practice music together (in this course we were practising for the school concert that had been arranged); lunch locally and trip out, reconvene to practice around 5pm; soirée (including performance either individually or in duets/trios) at 6.30 pm – then drinks, excellent three or four course dinner and good conversation.

(Yes. Stuffed cauliflower. No end to the fascinoma food we ate.)

Highlights:

Climb vertically out of the valley to an eco restaurant with 360 degree views. An hour to get there, twice as long to get served. Well worth it.

Guided walk by a family member of our landlords. A 10 k walk again vertically up the valley sides. The rural agriculture continues. Each family has a strip of land running from the road across the narrow valley floor then vertically up the hillside. The home has two rooms: the kitchen (and dining room and bedroom – all in one) is to the right of the door. To the left is the room for the agricultural implements – and the dowry chest, which is still a thing.

A steep walk took us to the winter hut. Here the cows (normally two or three) are overwintered along with the sheep. The family climbs there twice a day, everyday, in winter to feed and milk the animals.

And to clear up the excrement which is saved for the pasture. It is thick snow in winter. The animals are fed with hay cut by scythe from the vertical strip of land, and stored in the upper floor of the barn, any remaining hay being stored in a haystack.

In the summer the animals go to summer pastures in the mountains where shepherds care for large flocks. They milk the animals and make cheese whilst there.

How does each family know how much cheese should be produced from their animals?? By working out their percentage of the whole on ‘milk measuring day’, a weekend day in June, when the families get together to establish how much milk has come from their cattle and can therefore do the calculation. The shepherds get paid for their work and are also paid in cheese, which cheese they sell at the market.

Next trip. To the camera museum where a French man who married a Romanian woman and left his beloved France to live at the end of a dead end valley demonstrates old fashioned photography.

…. and the use of different lenses….

(Look carefully at this pic)

Followed by a cheese and wine tasting with plenty of local cheese and wine, the cheese being made by our hosts (landlords). Cheese included feta, cottage cheese, smoked cheese and a hard cheese they store for winter. This was preceded by home made plum brandy and followed by bilberry sponge – bilberries picked from the hillside.

Next day. Concert at village school. We were prepared for this all week. The children wore their best clothes – and so would not sit down in the hall.

As did the head……

The children had not seen live musicians before, never mind a saxophone or flutes (we had four sizes of flute).

It has to be said that they enjoyed the music, but were BESIDE THEMSELVES when we played Baby Shark.

And loved the balloon dogs Tracey, one of our group who is also a children’s entertainer, made for them.

A quiet night in should have ensued. Instead we went to get exercise. And completed the day with karaoke.

Great lunch too at the Promenade in Rasnov.

Finally Bran Castle – stuff of horror movies and Dracula tales. Bram Stoker the author had never been to Romania. The castle is tasteful and human now although must have been a great deterrent at the time it was built.

And so we leave, with memories of beautiful fountains in Bucharest, awesome mountain ranges, crazy traffic and a wonderful holiday.

Off to Romania – day 1. We meet Alexander the Great.

Time for some fun!

It’s been a busy summer -wedding, funeral, work…. and that Camino de Santiago trip that left me unable to walk for three weeks (literally) but was one of the best holidays ever- so time for a break before the onslaught of work in the winter.

Never one for the sun lounger we have opted to explore Transylvania – oh yes, and join a Sax course too.

In reverse order, let me introduce to those we have met so far. First off – Alexander (the Great, he tells me). Barman extraordinaire he bothers not with measures but ensures our two glasses of wine are equally full. With the attention to detail normally only found in intense sibling rivalry he squats and ensures the menisci in both glasses are absolutely equal. Furthermore,he effectively refuses to serve me a cup of tea as this would spoil the wine. The wine is Romanian. It’s red. It’s excellent. It’s served on ice.

Although Alexander initially seemed reluctant to have his photo taken, this is the third image. He wasn’t happy with the first two. He was however delighted to learn we were English. He worked at Manchester City stadium for five years. Why did he leave? He went to earn adequate money to afford a house and a car, and returned home when he had. (But remains a City fan).

Bucharest has a beautiful old town. Like many major European cities the old town attracts international restaurants with picture book menus and attractive young women to beguile us in the street. We resisted. We ended up in the ‘Brutal Pancake’, a street food shop run by a Russian.

And very good they were too. And cheap. And the water was served in a recyclable, returnable bottle.

We ‘ate in’, upstairs, in a place with ceilings so low even we got minor bumps on our heads.

Leaving our hotel earlier in the afternoon we ventured into a local park. Confused as to our whereabouts we (well, Keith as I knew his sense of direction would get us back eventually ) consulted a map. Immediately three smart young men joined and offered to help us. Two were American. The other they introduced as being ‘local’. ‘He was brought up here’. It’s all relative. He was brought up in Tunisia.

Turned out they are all members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Oh, I thought. One must prepare oneself for awkward questions. Along cane AQ number 1:

‘Which Premier League football team do you support?’ This is SO FAR from our comfort zone we had to ask them to repeat the question. K’s brilliant answer was….. I’m not interested in football but my wife follows it closely. Thank you Keith.

AQ Number 2: What makes for a long and happy marriage?

Our answer was : stunned silence. Then some mutterings and thoughts about the marriage practices of this group of people.

They have a branch in Bucharest:

The elders of the town instructed me on the use of the equipment of their outside gym in the park, a good workout which is necessary as I’ll miss my sessions next week. Great hips, tums, bums session …..

The town is a great mix of old and new in juxtaposition:

Cat our shuttle driver regaled us with great stories of Romanian Gipsies’ attitudes to the UK benefits system (there to be exploited), Belgian beer – and, more sombrely, life during the revolution. He frequently queued from 3 in the morning for ‘milk’ so thin it was indistinguishable from water. He showed buildings which were destroyed, sites of violent demonstrations and more.

And amazingly, despite using both hands to illustrate his point, in a city where driving is ‘enthusiastic’ to say the least, transported us safely to our hotel, the Zeus International.

(View from window)

Bucharest offers something for everyone: from high culture, to slightly worrying alternative culture: To…. er, this kind of culture:

Whoops. Lost the pic. Essentially one of adult entertainment.

But also, oh my, there’s a belief in the healing power of story telling.

A great day – and so to bed. It’s only 20.15 in the UK, but we’ve been up for hours, flown to a country so Far East it’s two hours time difference and discussed Brexit with all _ comers.

so it’s 22.30 here. Night!!!!

Highlands and Islands: Episode 3 the Northern Isles.

An eight session (four day) week meant that I had Tuesday off – quite necessary following my baptism by total novelty on day one at Scalloway. I can see twice the number of patients – or more – in Shropshire but know the systems – to the extent I have always, possibly ridiculously in retrospect, avoided crossing the border to locum in Telford and Wrekin, fearing that I would refer inappropriately ….well as luck would have it there is only one hospital on Shetland so all things medical and surgical go to the Gilbert Bain Hospital, Lerwick – unless the patients are sick enough to need more specialised care in which case it’s Aberdeen or Glasgow! It puts the Shropshire patients’ arguments against travelling from Oswestry to Telford or Stoke ( people deeming this far too far) into a different perspective entirely. The roads remain open to Telford and Stoke for the most part – yet there have already been at least two days when the planes did not arrive on Shetland ( no newspapers) since we came – and an urgent palliative care patient transport was delayed by 12 hours overnight due to weather conditions last week. We took the opportunity of traveling north to the top of the Shetlands on our first day off, to the Isle of Unst. This involves passing through Yell, another island. We pottered on and off the ferry at Yell, pulling to one side as we headed across the island to board the next ferry for Unst, wondering why people were in such a hurry. The answer is of course obvious. The Yell-Unst ferry is smaller than the Shetland mainland – Yell ferry and so there was a real risk we might not fit on to the former. I can imagine serious road rage – particularly as the following week saw the start of UnstFest, a week long party of performances and chip dinners and art exhibitions and nature walks. It attracts people from far and wide – but sadly one of the ferries is out of action so they are now down to 1.5 boats. Expectations were of traffic chaos at the ferry terminals and traffic carnage on the roads as the ‘single track with passing places’ arrangement fails to keep up with demand. We found one ferryman sitting in the sun, nay, basking in the sun as he told us he had been called in on his week off to marshall ferrytraffic. A big plus to this, he confided, was that he could not then be required to marshall over UnstFest – ‘not mae! I’m off in the other direction, you wanna faind mae anywhere near hair!’ (Apologies for my best approximation to the local phonetics.) Speech here is remarkably similar to that in New Zealand, particularly South Island NZ. Hardly surprising as many Shetlanders peopled New Zealand on the early boats.

Yell Unst ferry.
Basking ferry man.

There is a strong similarity in the demeanour too -a kind of diffidence that is difficult to describe – but very noticeable.

We asked the ferryman what would make them stop running the ferry at any one time? ‘We need guidelines’ he said. ‘There are times we go out when we shouldna – but whit can ye do? Folks waint to get haim.’ And of course many of those who are wanting to get home have done off shore work for weeks – desperate to get back for a while.

Unst is the most northerly inhabited island of the Shetland archilego and so is home to Briatin’s most northerly bus stop:

This might seem strange, with extra seats to supplement the hard bar intended to support weary souls. In fact, although fancy, it’s not on its own, many bustops having old computer chairs in them. Others have old arm chairs whilst one or two simply have solid wooden boxes.

Briatin’s most northerly tea room sells wonderful cakes – and is the site of KBP’s next Mate meeting – this gentleman is from Unst and lives in Lerwick. The promised excellent day’s weather – possibly the only day this summer, who knows, encouraged him to take the day off his self employed work, get on his motorbike, buy a box of four cream cakes (truly) and roar up to Unst…. His parents moved from Colchester to the island when he was around 18m old. His father worked for the RAF then bought himself out and ran a B & B. All went well until Gas came to the area, prices went up as huge rents could be obtained from the oil workers and their employers, and the long line of birders, and outdoorsy folk, the people who loved Unst for what it was – what it IS again now – stopped coming.

Victoria’s. Britain’s most northerly tea room plus K mate

His evident love of the Island told us of fine places to walk and great places to view. With limited time we headed direct to the bird reserve on the island’s northern tip. Walking through fairy style ( treeless) glens along a good solid boardwalk we were ambushed by one effusive lady gushing that we were heading for ‘puffin heaven’. As indeed we were – and gannet heaven and Great Skua heaven too! The puffins were within a couple of yards of us at the cliff edge, the gannets circled in front of us, attracting attention to nearby white rocks and stacks – the white covering being not lichen but nesting gannets – thousands of them. The Great Skuas ( which I’ve never seen before) were as big as chickens – and sitting just like chickens on the heathland – unless anyone edged too close in which case they buzzed and dive-bombed us in the most alarming manner, a manner only superseded by the arctic tern or tirrick who is agile of flight and terrifying of voice. A stick is useful – it makes one feel less afraid if nothing else!

Three of the many puffins
Note the gannet coated rocks

And to the return journey – boat to Yell, roller coaster ride down to south Yell to catch the next ferry – and one car turned away before us. But the beauty of our Fiat 500 – they squeezed us on – living in hope – but the back flap of the boat would not close so every car moved two inches forward! A tight fit, it got us home an hour sooner than would be the case otherwise – and in a very good humoured way.

KBP mates: 2 ( Cumulative: 4)

Highlands and Islands: a story in pictures and (few) words.

Tunisian Crochet is apparently the ‘thing’ amongst the ladies of Brae, and so I felt I’d joined a George Eliot novel by 11 am on the first day of this trip as I sat in a circle of ladies, equipped with crochet hook and wool and listening to Knit and Knatter, Shetlands Style. TBF they were extremely accommodating and invited me to a further session on a Tuesday – £2 for coffee and any profits go to charity on the island. My entry into the room went unremarked until Marina, our landlady, announced I would be ‘our new wee doctor’ at which point every head turned sharply round. Discovery that this is a short term post only meant they rapidly returned to the work in hand.

Which is supposed, eventually, to turn into this:

And to be worn as shown…. Kbp spent his time with a mate – a boat Pilot (and also husband of Mrs T Crochet) – most interesting. Possibly even more interesting than Tunisian crochet?

And so on to check out the two health centres where I’ll be working over the next fortnight:

One in Brae – large, clean looking, by a residential home and also very close to our house. That’s the spot for the second week as the regular GP has dropped to two days a week to allow private an out of hours work, I understand. Brae is a linear development well on the way to Sullom Voe the gas and oil terminal at the north end of the Shetland ‘mainland’.

The other in Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland, is a 35 minute drive from our accommodation but this drive involves a five minute trip along a single track road with passing places along side a lock….. (here’s a sneaky look at my journey home on day 1:)

This practice services the patients who live west of the main road and incorporates the Burra and Tondra islands (now linked by bridges). It was until recently the primary school and as such has beautiful high windows and also has some great views of the harbour. We did a reccy of Scalloway on day 2, finding the route and the practice and then exploring….

Who knew that Scalloway was the home of the Shetland Bus? The Shetland Bus(Norwegian Bokmål: Shetlandsbussene, ) was the nickname of a clandestine special operations group that made a permanent link between Mainland Shetland in Scotland and German occupied Norway from 1941 until the surrender of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shetland_bus). As such there are many memorials and a museum – and lots of Norwegians.

Including work by the local school.

Back to the Norwegian link: This was interesting because my first day of practice, the following day, was marked by being duty doc from the moment I arrived – and within minutes of starting surgery I was advised that a Norwegian fishing boat crew member with chest pain was coming in – and had to be seen soon as his boat was due to leave within a couple of hours. Interesting when it transpires that admissions, ambulances, computer systems – even national health numbers – all work differently here. It was a stressful morning. But things improved.

But to return to Scalloway, it’s a place of fishing and fishing boats, of parks and beauty and some poverty, of rubbish bins covered with fishing nets to keep the scavenging birds out, and ironic notices

(A convenient juxtaposition of assembly places) and huge boats whose sole role is to remove the lice from Salmon.

And to some of the gentlest most lovely people even if they do, as James from Aberdeen told us, spend all their time agossipin and abitching, then still, as he says, nobody bothers and they all get along – it ud be difficult if not, them being on an island and all.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Kbp new mates: 2a

Highlands and Islands. Day 1. Or ….an anticipatory sigh of relief.

Weeks, nay, MONTHS of preparation – and finally the day has arrived. Since that first night in February when H., unusually without book was forced to read a BMJ as K slept following his sister in law’s green funeral, and found an intriguing advert appealing to those ‘wanting one last challenge ((in their dotage) (why stop at one??) there has been an almost Olympian course of regulatory hurdles to leap. Simply to join the Scottish Performers List, a pre requisite of working as a GP in Scottish general practice, I had to provide an almost 40 years of detailed employment history and repeat a DRB check. In addition a 20 hour course on PreHospital Emergency Care, so-called BASICS course, with associated practical and written examination and a detailed occupational health questionnaire requiring a battery of blood tests including an HIV assessment …. but finally the day has arrived. We’re in Brae, home of Britain’s most northerly fish and chip shop (all responsibly sourced of course) and place of employment for me in nine days time.

Contact with the Shetlands Hub health board has been excellent throughout this process of selection for the ‘GP Joy’ scheme, a project linking the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides), the Orkneys, the Shetlands and north west Scottish Highlands in their quest to recruit a group of experienced GPs to provide locum holiday and sick cover, and in some cases to provide substantive cover for 18 weeks a year. The original two day interview in Strathpeffer was followed up with a postcard from the recruiting panel, wishing the successful candidates well in the next stages of selection (essentially the BASICS course). Always available to give advice they have booked accommodation and arranged transport for us. They recommended I bought my doctor’s bag with me so of course I obliged.

This bag is a typical Gladstone bag – heavy, leather, serious – which I bought to accompany me in my role of GP on the TranSiberian Express (luxury version) in 2014. Filled with guidelines, the old school ophthalmoscope I bought in 1986, six (yes!!! But only two came) stethoscopes, speculum, torches, gloves and other sundry items this in itself weighed almost 7kg and took an awful lots of suitcase space, a volume issue resolved by packing it with other items: bird book, socks, binoculars and the like. The entire suitcase weighed a chunky 22.5kg ultimately. It included vital items: the anti nudge headwear and Avon Skin So Soft inadvertent midge deterrent, and two packets of Welsh cakes, of which more later.

And for those who aren’t part of the close family, this next picture may come as a surprise, but we (well, a couple of us….mainly me) always lay our travelling gear out the night before (as much to check we’ve not packed all our undies as anything else)…

Staying for such a short time in Shetland we opted for the 90 minute flight over the 10 hour drive to Aberdeen by overnight crossing to Lerwick. Strangely our ticket gave us access to the executive lounge in Manchester. What a frost! More crowded than the public areas downstairs we were limited in seating opportunities as some people, incredibly, not satisfied with having an exclusive executive lounge with free breakfast and unlimited alcohol further feel the need to reserve a prime window seat if their choice! And the toilets were smelly.

Keith looked comfy in the seat we did find though:

Approach to landing was interestingly choppy but soon we were through into arrivals which bore a remarkable similarity to New Zealand South Island – Christchurch airport- where there was a preponderance of people in outdoor walking gear and Viking coloration.

Our car: a green fiat 500. Thank god I’m not 2m tall like some of our close friends!

And our first stop: the old harbour Lerwick, because here they have ocean going yachts, because here bewhiskered Shetlanders stop and talk, because here a cruise liner will pause tomorrow but also because here they have the Peerie shop and, most importantly, cafe. A cafe with homemade soup and bread – and great coffee. And great art. And silly art.

and ultimately via Tesco Lerwick (which sells loose veg, not in plastic bags) to our three bedroomed home for the next two weeks.

A stroll in the evening saw the people of Brae packing up after their fun filled activity day – sailing, bouncy castle, bbq and so forth. We saw curlews, oyster catchers, Arctic terms (or Tirricks as they’re known here) and hooded crows.

Great views of evening sunlight in hills across the water to Muckle Roe (bad photo though) and panic as I realised…..

I had packed no knickers.

Panic indeed, Shetland not being the obvious purveyor of underwear to the picky.

But, thank goodness – they were eventually located in the Gladstone bag. So glad I found them tonight and not as I went to examine the first patient on Monday morning!

And so to a well earned rest with the promise of a community coffee morning and teaching of Tunisian crochet the next morning. I could barely sleep with the excitement!

Jour 13

Our final day of walking – Massip to Conques. Only 22km with less rain, and lighter bags as we have dispensed with some items along the way – toothpaste and soap and (a little) sun protection cream.

‘Only’ 22km???!!!! We struggled to manage 15 on day one and two. Incredible that our precious trip and time together has come towards its end so soon, yet pleased to be reaching our destination, we determined to make the most of every minute, the call of the cuckoo and willow warbler, the incredible array of flowers, now including trees of wisteria and clumps of escholzia as well as red valerian and white campions in the hedge rows.

But it rained.

And around 20 pilgrims ate a picnic lunch in a cafe.

We climbed to the crest of the hill, and limped through typical Aveyron villages:

Until finally, after a long difficult rocky and muddy descent, we arrived at Conques:

Two Parisian ladies we had coincided with throughout our trip arrived simultaneously.

And what a fairytale end to a wonderful trip: Conques is a beautiful and enchanting medieval town:

With a wonderful abbey that is warm and welcoming, and that was our final nights stay, in our own room, with en suite.

Pilgrims’ cloaks and sticks.

Accommodation. Ours on third floor, sadly.

Dinner hosted by the monks.

And so to bed:

Distance :22km total 221 including distance to start of route in Le Puy.

Items lost: 14. The contents of H’s knickers drawer.

Tantrums: nil

Taxi: nil

Jour 12

Espalion to Massip

Well god had thrown snow, blizzard, burning hot sun, closed bakeries and more at us. Today he went for rain. An uncompromising 100% chance of rain. He did not disappoint.

Knowing we had 26.5 km to do, including lengths of red (challenging, normally steep uphill ) walk we opted to miss breakfast, hit a (hopefully open) baker early and get on our way. So at 7.10, our pockets stuffed with pains aux raisins (and a sneaky extra croissant aux amandes in my jacket) we set off, waterproofs on, head down.

Megg is tough but fair. All wide eyed pleas for clemency, or at least breakfast, unheard we continued up, and up, and up…..until finally…..

And boy, did that taste good!

Note Megg’s rain skirt made out of hot air balloon material? Very effective – keeps one dry without overheating. And it folds into its own pocket.

Note Susan’s lack of waterproof trousers – that’s one of the items, along with hat and gloves, she would take next time.

Note Keith’s yellow jacket? Well yes, who could fail to.

Believing we had got through the terrible weather early we then relaxed a little although S was hampered by a walking cane that disintegrated, and H by legs that refused to walk without great pain. Still we made steady if slow progress.

And we’re rewarded by an enchanting coffee stop, with still warm apple and almond cake:

Passed via Estaing, no need to stop as already replenished:

And adorable dogs:

The dog appeared much happier than this photo portrays, thankfully.

Then: the rain, the rain, the thunder and the lightening. An incredible storm, but thankfully we had stopped by one of the not infrequent ‘WC PELERIN’ – a long drop toilet which one of our group had availed themselves of. At one point eight of us were huddled in there, breaking through our mouths and watching the river created by the storm carrying flows of twigs and leaves down the hillside.

See separate posting : odiferous in France!

These images do not begin to convey the ferocity of the storm.

Still another 5.5km to go.

The auberges are largely converted ancient buildings in tiny remote villages, literally miles from anywhere, often with no mobile signal and frequently no WiFi.

The path passes through remote valleys and we could go for hours without seeing anyone other than another pilgrim. Sometimes not even that.

So – no choice, despite our sodden clothes, weighty packs and various significant aches and pains, than to go on.

To go on to THE BEST GITE WE HAVE VISITED!

Susan was quietly exhausted. Me less so (less quiet).

The family who run the Gite at Massip clearly love their role. It is warm, clean, welcoming, well organised – and the food is to die for!

The son, Stephan, explains each course. We started with herb fritters with a great bowl of salad.

Then a pork and chestnut casserole with pasta for the carnivores, and Swiss chard with bechamel for both the vegetarians.

And finally a family recipe apple tart with soft cheese and apricot conserve:

Then tisanes aux choix.

After dinner we all pay and our Credenciale is stamped.

Most gites will only let you stay one night and one has to be a pilgrim.

Typical cost for half board is around 35€. This frequently includes wine.

Distance : 26

Taxis: Nil

Items lost: 13

Tantrums: nil. Don’t mention the WC PELERIN. …..