Jour 5. Mr Eiffel.

Montbonnet to Monistrole d’Allier

Goodbye to Marie who runs the excellent Gite de L’escole at Montbonnet. She is an excellent hostess, coming as she does at the start of the Chenin, and telling people clearly what is expected of them. She runs the place from early March to end October, every day, singlehanded.

An easier day, slightly, although the descent from ‘lac d’oeuf’ (literally lake of the egg, where you’ll see neither lake or egg) to Saint-Privat-d’Allier’ was extreme as K lost sensation in his legs and toppled briefly, but rapidly recovered. The description in the guide, roughly translated, says: it is a rough descent although most people manage it without breaking a limb. Those that do (break a limb) are collected at the end of the season by the clearing up crews, except for those already consumed by wolves.’ Great!!!

Interestingly Susan chose this moment to describe a book she had read and enjoyed ‘Into The Void’.

Saint Privat is part of the area which grows lentils, the famous Le Puy lentils, which have their own ‘appellation’ mark of quality, reknowned for their ease of cooking and high fibre and protein content … are some stats:

And a great little cafe just started by a young man ‘pilgrims meet bikers’. Not sure it’s a winning combination but who knows? Coffee and crepes were good.

Now we’re making some progress. …..

Lunch by the Chapelle de Rochegude, a view point promontory where the rich merchants kept control of, and taxed, anyone crossing the valley was accompanied by a strident cockerel and a friendly donkey.

And the views? to die for – one can see why the view point was chosen.

And so to Monistrole d’Allier. Next to the Pont D’eiffel at the Gite of the same name, mr Eiffel having run out of money, but not steel bars and nuts apparently, built the Eiffel Bridge across the Allier and installed a toll house – where we stay tonight with Andre Solakian, a raconteur.

Distance: 16km Cum. 35

Items lost: 4

Tantrums: 1 small

Taxis nil.

Day 4. Ça commence!

So. The Pilgrims’ Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Le Puy en Velay, is at 7 each morning. Expecting a 10 minute or so ‘quickie’ we were surprised to be involved in a full scale catholic mass complete with – well with everything. Susan was honoured to be selected to carry the blood of Christ (or wine) to the altar.

After this full mass the pilgrims were invited to a separate prayer fest of their own, at which it transpired we were the only three English people there, the majority coming from France and 11 from Switzerland. A smiley priest encouraged us to take prayers written by others along in our pilgrimage and to take a copy of the book of St Luke. We also received a small scallop shell miniature each.

This shell, like a charm from a charm bracelet, is representative of the scallop shell, ‘coquille de st Jaques’ which is a theme throughout the route, brass shell symbols being embedded in the streets in towns to mark out the route, and many pilgrims carrying one on their rucksacks.

Then the walking….. but first a few pictures from round Le Puy:

Ancient shop fronts.

Steep streets and steps to the Cathedral, , narrow ruelles and the doctor’s surgery.

A typical pilgrim: hat, stick, boots, exhausted.

And so the walking started.

Initially a guide to how the GR or Grande Randonnée works. The system works over all the GR system in Europe. Ours is GR 65.

We are walking from Le Puy to Conques, around 200 in 10 days.

The official start:

All uphill it seems, with us getting accustomed to carrying our rucksacks and using our walking poles it was hard and we were glad to arrive at Montbonnet tonight, having followed the GR65 from Le Puy.

Everyone ‘doing’ a Camino has to have a Credenciale or a kind of passport which is stamped at the outset and again at every stop – by the gite owners or the Boulanger or the priest or some other noteworthy person in each village where you stay.

Most gites or auberges – rather like an old school youth hostel – will not put you up unless you arrive on foot (or horse or mule) and have a credenciale.

Tonight we stayed in the Gite L’escole in Montbonnet. Previously a school it was changed to a hostel for cross country skiers some years ago and is now run by a lively woman who chatted to us throughout dinner, making us all introduce ourselves in English and French.

Our group tonight was 14 and included Germans, lots of French,our New Zealand friend and travel companion Megg, two Finnish people and we three English.

Food? Home made veg soup. Lentils de puy and boudin (fat sausage) or omelette for the vegetarians, locally made cheese then apple tart. All around a big table. Was really fun. Oh there is wine available too!

There’s so much to say about today – the bowl of the Le Puy volcanic plain, the Kite slowly twisting and turning above, the wildflowers : banks of violets, celandines, cowslip, Stitchwort…..the slow flowing streams, the traditional architecture….

Note the posts for tying the mules? These are at a picnic spot.

And the people. This is Dédé. We met him over lunch. He was walking too – a little round trip to the bar. Lovely smile.

Distance: 19km

Items lost: 2, one rediscovered and cumulative total three.

Tantrums: nil

Taxi trips: one. Megg has been unwell for days so came ahead, but seems better now.

Le Pèlerinage. Jour 3.

Quoi discuter à petit-déjeuner?

As a team we’ve had quite an effect on the local catering services. The resto where we ate last night – and were the very last to leave – is now totally closed down. Not expected to reopen.

For a week.

The Airbnb …. up a steep street and exactly what it says on the can – simple, spacious, central. And up four extremely steep flights of stairs:

Great view of rooftops, hills beyond, and this morning a group of singing pilgrims at eight.

Lovely sound as it’s funnelled up through the narrow streets.

Although the boulangerie was open, we opted for breakfast further afield. Delicious, light as a feather – indeed cloud like – almond croissants, crisp and savoury pain au chocolate…. did we discuss these? My husband opted to discuss – in detail – the system used to clear pavements of dog faeces in Paris. When asked to stop he moved onto wonder how they actually disposed of the ‘items’ collected. Yum.

Anyway – the theme continues…..

Self explanatory.

Le Puy is situated in the bowl of a volcanic plane – with some incredible structures perching on pinnacles of volcanic eruptions.

We walked up to the cathedral….

Past the school of lace making….

And some wonderful doors…..

To the statue of Notre Dame de France….

Incredible statistics….

But you can climb up in the statue…. right to the very top…..and again…..

Can you see that some silly person is waving from the top – look again – they’ve actually got their head out! Who could that be?

The Rocher St Michel is equally impressive, with an apparently tiny staircase winding round its periphery – made me very glad not to be doing a home visit…..

And an even better view of the two outcrops across the roofs of the sheds on the local allotments.

And so to collect Megg, our great friend and walker extraordinaire, who has already tramped 100s of km since starting on March 1, and will continue to walk for many days after we have left.

A total inspiration to us all.

An afternoon of talking, tea and general catch up and then an excellent dinner at La Table du Plot.

Those who know Kbp will not be surprised that he opted for…..the cod. But it was excellent. A most pleasant meal in super company:

And so to bed – the pilgrims’ mass is at 7 tomorrow.

Tantrums: why should anyone have a tantrum over breakfast? I didn’t.

Items ‘lost’: 1 cumulative 3.

Enjoyment: high.

Day 2.

  • A day of lovely people, we expect. Starting with Ted who at 11 still gets up early – he must have been as our departure time was 06.45. Taxi arrived at 06.30. Ted satisfies the maxim of my friend Fran who stated: children get up very early whilst they’re too young to be useful, then not so much. Ted is on the cusp – a helpful early riser.
  • All preparations against being detained by the London Marathon were so successful we reached st Pancras by 7.15 for a 9.30 train – beautiful station enhanced by the music played by this young man on the concourse piano.
  • A Real Treat.
  • Eurostar London- Paris, cross Paris transfer and Paris – Lyon all excellent. Happy travellers!
  • But how weird to find the TGV from Paris to Lyon is a quadruple train – two trains nose to nose, both of them double deckers! Now THAT takes some cars off the road.
  • The station at Lyon was in disarray with building works, packed to the gunwhales with an incredible array of people yet still sold delicious fresh reasonably priced food with posters bearing the healthy equivalent of a cigarette warning, directing people to the internet site: ‘mangerbouger’ …… does what it says on the can!
  • And the train? To die for. Eat your heart out, Arriva.
  • Lyon/st etienne chateaucreux was efficient. Here we knew we were in France (on a rainy grey Sunday).
  • BUT the trip st etienne chateaucreux/le puy en Velay was incredibly beautiful running as it does along the Loire, complete with fairy tale chateaux.
  • No pics – too fast.

    And finally – we arrive. 30 hours since leaving Gobowen ….. sleepy, steep, entrancing town.

    Items ‘lost’: 1

    Tantrums: no actual tantrums

    Le Pèlerinage.

    Subarctic temperatures and 30mph winds in Shropshire, delayed trains due to ‘trees on line’ resulting in missed connections, last minute packing of extra layers and a fur lined hooded parka as well as a huge woollen scarf meant that – well – things can, hopefully, only get better.

    As ever public transport was a great source of people watching, one taxi disgorging a clutch of women sporting various rather slinky animal prints – a leopard skin all-in-one in one case, although the wearer was less lithe than the beast she portrayed, another in an eye catching zebra stripe. The accompanying men were touchingly attired in formal three piece suits and severe haircuts. Where were they heading? A wedding? In Chester zoo perhaps? A night out? We shall never know. On finding the train was running 23 minutes late they all repaired to the local hostelry, only a fraction of them returning for the departure.

    One of the great things (!) about Social Media is the potential to link up with other like minded people. Thus on choosing a dinner venue I consulted my 858 doctor ‘friends’ on Medic Foodies on FB.

    The Roti King on Doric Street they cried, as one. But this was formidably over queued.

    The Ravi Shankar on Drummond Street was a hot second: cheerful vegetarian South Indian cuisine cafe style.

    Spinach and paneer dosa: and paneer tikka for my companion. With peshwari naan.

    We’ve met with our travelling companion Susan, shared stories of packing, unpacking and the reality of actually having to carry everything yourself for two weeks and 200km, and unpacking again. Maybe just the one book then? Deodorants- possibly overrated? Time will tell but for tonight we’ve been welcomed to Sarah’s house in Wandsworth, Shared a glass of wine …. oh and checked that the taxi Company knew of tomorrow’s marathon when they said an hour was plenty to reach st Pancras. They didn’t. It isn’t. We’re leaving at 06.45 for a 09.30 train.

    Onwards and upwards. The story of the prayer flag knickers may be about to begin……

    The journey, lights and fate

    Despite our average age easily exceeding 60, and being in one of the richest architecturally and artistic cities I have ever visited, the switching on and off of lights has played a strong role in this short break.

    Unable to find the method of extinguishing his own bedside light my companion for the last two nights has flicked off the room master switch, stumbling ‘o heck, o heck’ on his way back to bed and again whenever nature calls during the night.

    Amazed at the sort of mind that manages to make something so simple so complicated we then discussed other items that fall into the same category – toilet flushes, taps and so forth

    However earlier in the day we positively triumphed in the light department – in an underground car park. Such an ingenious place! Lights above each space – green for empty, red for occupied and blue for disabled (unoccupied) – so one can see at a glance where free spots are……

    But not when some fool comes along and pretends they’re a car, and this: becomes this:

    We found we could each be three cars simultaneously! Who needs guided tours of the castle when you can have this much fun in an underground car park?

    Next time, as has been suggested by a close and slightly cheeky relative, we’ll voice the reversing sensors too.

    The fun continued at the Fado restaurant. Women sing of lost love, disappointment and longing, the whole audience is carried along with the depth of emotion, the tragedy and happily joins in clapping along as some glimmer of hope is discerned in this abyss of despair. No one is immune. Well almost no one. …..

    Planning to visit the grander sights of the town today we instead turned left, ignored the palatial buildings, and caught the ferry to Cacilhas to marvel at the Cristo Rei. Based on Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro it stands on a cliff on the bank of the RiverTagus overlooking Lisboa. The pedestals (four) are 82m high and support the 28m high figure of Christ. See

    It is impressive:

    As are views from the top:

    But the journey was the best part of the day. Having seen the Portuguese navy’s last built wooden ship (built in 1843 and used til 1963, reminiscent of The Victory, but much lower key and far cheaper to tour), and a submarine, we once again eschewed public transport and walked along abandoned wharfs, took a free lift up a cliff face and walked through what the guide describes as a ‘dilapidated’ residential area to the top. Interesting.

    Interesting graffiti:


    And machinery:

    Great food:

    But a little chilly by the river, in the shadow of the cliff, so we thought we’d warm up with a coffee – a madrogali I think it was. Hey! We’re good with language. No need to ask for details. My companion’s tight lipped expression, and wearing of coat, says it all. Iced coffee – more ice cubes than coffee- and lemon! No doubt highly refreshing at the height of summer.

    And so, once again, out for dinner, hoping we find it warming and filling.

    But before that – the answer to the mystery of the missing light switch discovered by yours truly. No fancy pants touching the base, talking to the lamp (!!), trying every possible combination of lights switches in the room or any of the other alternatives we’ve considered and tried.

    It’s this:

    That’s all folks! Sweet dreams!

    Chefs, Castles and Cobbles

    Dehydrated olive sand not quite your bag? Well rest assured there are many more choices of wonderful seafood in the foodie heaven that is the mercado do ribeiro in downtown Lisboa. Such is its prestige that the top chefs of the country apparently vie for a stall here.

    For an ordinary elderly Shropshire couple it was a great people watching and gastronomic experience:

    Even the journey there – on foot – downhill which should have made us think more about the issues of return after a bottle of ‘green wine’ was fun: posh hairdressers, wine bar with a ceiling of bottles- and ‘Boris scooters’ .

    I think even I could work out how to stop and go these beauties. Whether I could stay upright is another issue.

    And anyway they are banned from the area we walked to today (too hilly).

    Bucketloads of wine and coffee and sugar consumption off the scale last night dictated a walk along the front. One thing Lisboa has in Abundance is graffiti. Some of it impressive – this 3D wolf for example :

    And some more today:

    Including the comic book representation of the history of Lisboa. Outside a toilet.

    Also art in many other forms:

    Stone walrus. Amusing. But I found the nativity intriguing:

    Look closely. It’s all in there.

    Made by this chap:

    Whilst this one was creating his own art:

    The Portuguese tile art told some intriguing stories:

    Fish listening to (I think) the messiah.

    A woman having her second breast removed with a hot knife and put on some kind of bbq.

    But still the church retains its pomp. This line of ?bishop’s mitres in the cathedral for example:

    And all around, wonderful faces, sounds and smells:

    Joe from the States.

    Lunch and it’s maker.



    Lovely faces:

    And a fabulous sunset:

    And now: to din.

    Drug screening and disability. Life after practice.

    A year on from New Zealand, and four from resigning from my practice, too indolent to make the journey to Hawaii, and too nesh* to stay in England, we’ve taken the plunge – a city break to Lisboa. Yes. I’ve been brushing up on my Portuguese which I last learnt for a month’s trip to Brazil in 1987 – so possibly slightly rusty – and now know how to say ‘the man has a dog’ and ‘the woman reads a book’. Possibly even the man has a woman and the dog reads a book. Who knows? I may never have chance to try those phrases over the next two days. What I do know though is that it is exactly the same situation as when I arrived in Bruxelles (1980, for the historians amongst you), having studied French for five years at one of the top girls’ schools in the country – I cannot order two cups of coffee. Except in Bruxelles it was as I arrived on the station as I ’emigrated’ there – boat train to Oostende and train to Bruxelles – and so was also alone and therefore couldn’t order one coffee. I cried.

    Now I have a bionic ear (bone anchored hearing aid, BAHA) I apparently have a hidden disability, although it’s difficult to imagine anything less hidden as I now have a large press-stud on my head which a huge hearing aid clips onto. The disability qualifies me for a special lanyard which allows a short cut through security, early access to the plane and possibly other benefits. (Yet to be discovered)

    All good although one is also holed up with other less able people – wheelchairs, confusion, babies in buggies etc. …. so it takes some time to get through Security particularly as problems scanning me meant an overly intimate screening which I won’t be in a hurry to repeat.

    My other half meanwhile sailed through and departed rapidly leaving me thinking dark thoughts. Except he hadn’t.

    Maybe he looked too ‘normal’ to be going through the special assistance channel – it was a skewed population don’t forget . He was stopped for a drug search. Reminiscent of the cocaine spotting police in Peru airports we’ve seen recently (on tv I hasten to add) she checked his toothpaste and plastic bag with a detective cotton bud.

    As the test was negative we reached our destination of Lisboa, proudly eschewed the taxi pimps and made straight for the metro (Kbp having tackled the two coffee in a foreign language issue by dint of the old ‘say it loud, say it slow, say it in English’ approach – will it work after Brexit?), proud that we’d read our guide, brought the old tickets provided by a friend and confidently programmed our desired transport ticket type (reading the Portuguese, fat finger syndrome resulting in us pressing the wrong button on the screen) and congratulated ourselves as we headed towards the gates.

    Why are taps, lights and underground barriers so complex these days? We followed the instructions, in all their permutations, helped by passers by who took pity on this poor old tourist couple, one of whom has a large press-stud in her head.

    We failed.

    So enthusiastic had we been that we managed not to put anything on the travel cards so had to go to the ticket window. Same process. Loud. Slow. English. Works every time (but is embarrassing).

    Metro is clean efficient and well signposted.

    And as we finally emerged into daylight – sunshine- our senses were assaulted by sounds, smells, colours and patterns. Sounds of two beautiful buskers playing first Mozart then ‘the first nowell’ on violins. Smells of Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts, one is never enough says Sofia who welcomed us to the hotel) and of roasting chestnuts.

    Patterns of cobbles. And tiles. And wonderful buildings.

    And so to the hotel: Alecrim ao Chiado, also known as ‘Once Upon A House’, which is quirky, elegant, perfectly positioned, immensely friendly and very reasonably priced. Here are some sneak previews, we’re off to the night market to choose dinner. Back tomorrow !

    Entrance hall

    View from window


    I think this will do very nicely!

    *a northern word. I think I would translate it along the lines of ‘overly sensitive to the cold’

    Avocets and snores, and more…

    Undeterred we continued our quest for birds, spurred on by the tractor driver from near ‘Riber’ ,as we are now calling it, who gave  detailed instructions to access inland lakes we left home by 7 (ish) the following morning. He regretted the fact we had not been there the week before when the shore was ‘covered’ with ‘thousands’ of birds. ‘They just went’ he said.

    Winding routes through wooded sandy lanes, past manicured ‘Husets’, past delapidated farms  and rather frightening institutionalised buildings which unwillingly brought thoughts of concealed abuse with them- who would know? – and of course gorgeous picnic sites and fascinating churches we finally   found an area full of wildlife – hares, kestrels, peregrine falcons, brent geese, tufted ducks,a  black stilt, shelduck, tufted ducks, indeterminate terns, sparrowhawks, curlews, lapwings, swans, oysterctachers – and eight avocets.

    Image result for avocets image denmark waddensea

    Image result for avocets image denmark waddensea

    Never before have I knowingly identified an avocet. Now,  whilst N and R at times    dozed in the sun in the car, at times joined us, we spent a full hour watchiing these elegant, beautiful,  inimitable birds with their pied plumage and upturned beaks doing what avocets do – being, poddling, flying, feeding – and I’ll never, I swear, mistake them again.

    SO worth it yet by lunchtime we felt tired and so adjourned for a siesta. Reasonable – we’d walked a bit the day before. It was hot.

    Knowing that we’d missed the Sort Sol, ‘Black Sun’*, where thousands of starlings in a murmuration swirl around the sky for around an hour at dusk, we neverthless visited the vantage point for seeing them that evening…. not a starling in site but some wonderful wildlife – and great pics by R.

    Home for more well earned rest. But the man in the pizza outlet next door to the  Airbnb, Ahmed,   the man with the beautiful smile and big wave every time we walked past – he walked to  Ribe from Afghanistan two years ago. And we thought we were tired.

    • March/April and August-October

    Mando Island by tractor…

    So how would you pronouce ‘Ribe’? To rhyme with   that wonderful Southern French town ‘Antibes’ I would have thought. It’s obvious. But KBP our distinguished elder insists on pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘river’ : ‘Riber,’ effectively, and spouted this to anyone who would listen – which was a surprisingly large number of people.

    In other news, the unseasonable weather was wonderfully hot, but had sadly led to the sudden onward flight of the many sea birds that frequent the coast, rather thwarting our attempt at some serious ornithology, the raison d’être of the original invitation. But no matter – warned of the damage of floods and rip tides, the mortal risk to life and limb of those who unknowingly cross the causeway to Mando in their own vehicles, we took the tractor…prepared against the elements…

    across a causeway that looked as though it hadn’t seen water for weeks! Never mind. The two tractor companies appear to be in some kind of pact which perpetuates the myth of the risks – yet also allowed us to take things slowly and watch the intertidal area from a good height thus allowing observation of many sea bird species, and in particular the oyster catchers sitting on their nests.

    Who knew about the interspecies variation of the oystercatcher beaks – be they stabbers or prisers, or indeed worm eaters – which apparently evidences ‘resource polymorphism’, a term better explained by this fascinating link..….

    Mando Island has an area of around 7.6 km sq and a population of around 50.  We, Shropshire people, thought Ribe was quiet but this was something else.   And so after the picnic lunch on the sand dunes we  bird and nest spotted, KBP with his eagle eyes pointing out nests I couldn’t see even when he gesticulated wildly towards them, so great is the camouflage.

    OK so it looks pretty obvious now but….

    This nest had three eggs, most had one. Each time we spotted one we were buzzed by an angry parent. Those bills, whether chisel shaped or otherwise, can look quite alarming….

    We watched terns, unable to identify which of the many possible species  were there, as it seems the differences are   very slight, viz:

    Common Terns were heavier and had higher values of bill + head length, wing breadth and wing area. Although Arctic Terns were smaller than Common Terns in most measurements, they had significantly longer outer wings (wing length as normally measured by ringers). Differences between the species in total wing length (wing tip to body) and in wing loading (body weight/wing area) were not significant. These differences, especially the longer outer wing and lighter weight of the Arctic Tern, can be related qualitatively to the flight characteristics and habitat preferences of each species.

    Thus it seems you have to kill a large number of terns, measure bill size, wingspan, tail length etc and then you can determine whether the beautiful aerobatics emanate from a common, or arctic ( or Roseate or Little or…. or…..)

    So we played in the water,  watched seabirds on nests slung on the ropes between groynes, dunlin skittering about the shore and oyster catchers buzzing us – and two huge exuberant hares…..

    I must be getting older as I’m definitely getting wiser. That’s not true. N is getting wiser. Leaving K to go directly back to the tractor we went looking for a dog  and came across, at the last minute prior to departure, an ice cream shop. We risked a degree of wrath, selecting not just an ice, but one which required discussion about flavours, toppings etc etc. Far too hot to take one to K    said I – it will be melted.  Not at all, said N. He would rather have  a melted thought of an ice cream than none at all. And they have pistachio. R agreed fervently.

    They were right. We were extremely last minute. Storm clouds were gathering. The proferring of a semi-liquid greenish sample in a s mall cardboard pot seemed to disperse all concerns in a flash. Wise old birds…….