Marigold Says...

Random thoughts on travelling and life in general.

Marigold finding life inside a shepherd’s bothie isn’t as comfortable as she imagined

Marigold Says...

I yawned yesterday and had lockjaw, which is a variation of lockdown, for what felt like several hours, in fact it was about a minute, I looked like the Scream. G walked into the room, I was waving my arms in agony, he looked at me and walked out. Anybody would think I was a drama Queen. I keep looking at my face expecting bruising at least, also worried if this happened going through customs I wouldn’t match my passport photo.

Talking of yawning or similar, I was temping many years ago in an office. Temps usually get ignored which at the time suited me as they were a funny lot. Anyway, I started to choke and went out the fire door. It lasted for ages and culminated in gasping for breath. After nearly dying on my own on a fire escape I returned to my desk, mascara running down my face and red blotches up my neck. Nobody commented. Maybe they thought I had a second job as a clown. I didn’t go back again. As I worked for myself I could be choosy.

We got some euros at the post office but they only had a few left so we had to go to Tesco. We ordered them online, well G did, and went off to collect the next day. Woman in the booth asked me whereabouts in America we were going.

Just after she finally finished counting out our EUROS.

I said ‘Tibet.’

Not even a blink.

Got all our paperwork ready in a huge folder which we had to tow on a trailer marked Private and Confidential On the other side just in case marked privé. Had to look that one up but a bit obvious. We didn’t really have a trailer but there was so much paper stuff. Luckily G dealt with it, as I even get nervous when I have to write or state my name. If a gendarme stops us on the road I immediately need a toilet. Anyway I am far too stupid to be bothered. For some reason I go very red and look feeble, guilty and pathetic. Thelma and Louise I ain’t. Anyway G is very capable in these matters so luckily I just stay shtum with a red face.

As we were going through, the head honcho came out with a dog who was told to sniff the car and the dashboard. I thought I was going to faint What if we had to get everything out. When I looked at the back seat it did look like a person covered with a blanket. Dog sniffed its way around and was so big it would have taken your head off.

They then wanted to sniff the boot. I was very worried about this, as we all know dogs like ginger biscuits. The mutt didn’t give them a second sniff or second glance. Waved through. Phew!

I remember once going through the border at Switzerland with the best of our stuff after a house sale and loading it all in the car. The policeman at the border wanted to know if we were going into Switzerland to do a car boot sale. How rude. They made us empty the car which was no mean feat as we had rammed everything in. It was all over the floor in the waiting room, looking quite frankly revolting.

When he said we could go we would have loved to have left it where it was but seeing as they were standing there with guns poised we did as we were told. We actually turned round and left Switzerland and don’t have a hankering to go back. Po faced officialdom comes to mind.

Today, we rushed to the ferry and were actually the last in and last off. How did that happen? This is how. Firstly, we were told to follow a lorry, which stopped and we had to back up. I got so stressed I had to have a sandwich.

We finally got to the booth. The U.K. chap was lovely and then the french booth man said to me across G “can you take off” couldn’t tell the rest.

I asked G, he said ‘ I think he wants you to take your clothes off, no your glasses you fool.’ I was trying not to laugh as booth man would have got cross and arrested us. Then we had to go to security where they swabbed the steering wheel and door handles. The only illegal substance on the steering wheel would be chocolate and Murray mints. By this time I was quite red. No wonder we were last on.

Our first hotel in France was really quite revolting. Happily, the choice was down to G, it was like an army barracks site. The wi fi didn’t work, the shower dribbled pathetically and every time somebody upstairs flushed the toilet it created a sort of drumming noise above our heads. Saying that I had the best kip ever. They were very good upstairs and didn’t start flushing till 5am.

Yes, I really do get mistaken for a prominent secret agent. Here's the proof

G Says...

 ‘Where are you off to this time?’ A reasonable question. Easy enough, if you know the answer, as most people would on the night before departure. Not so easy in our case. As usual, we’re giving the impression of just faffing about. I had adumbrated a couple of possible scenarios, essentially dependent on whether we turn right or left at Calais. We once settled that issue by a coin toss while awaiting our turn to disembark in the Tunnel.

On balance, the House Stark motto from Game of Thrones – Winter is Coming – is tipping the balance towards turning right on this occasion. Head South and then Westward, that’s where the sunshine is lurking. Of course, there’s also the matter of our ‘going where the mood takes us’ system which has served us well over so many years, to be considered. Make that so many decades; we’ve never been slaves to any form of pre-ordained planning.

I went to collect some euros from the Post Office. I noticed the cctv camera light blinking as I was watching the notes being counted. Not much point in trying to identify anyone standing at the counter these days with almost every customer wearing a mask. Maybe they mainly focus on seeking out those carrying a sawn off shotgun or a drawstring bag marked ‘Swag.’

We'd arrived to collect our pre ordered euros, but ‘due to Covid’ they hadn’t arrived. We accepted this most convenient of excuses readily enough, worn down by how many times a pandemic has been blamed for all the ills of the world.

‘I’ve got some, just not enough, will that do?’

I nodded, bird in the hand coming to mind. Take what’s on offer. Counting the notes didn’t go well. Three attempts and a different amount on each occasion. I had been counting as well and arrived at an identical amount each time, but the final responsibility wasn’t dependent on me.

‘I’m all thumbs lately,’ the cheerful post office woman remarked. ‘I see you’re getting euros today. Are you going abroad then?’

That was quite a likely conclusion, I thought, but just nodded in reply.

‘Going anywhere nice?’

‘I certainly hope so. We’re just off travelling, see where it takes us.’

Baffled expression. People seem to need an actual destination to process, I’ve found. Our weird system of seemingly aimless wandering engenders mild concern. It also appeared to complicate the task of counting out bank notes as by now we were on fresh start number five.

We finally agreed the notes added up to the same amount I had already mentally agreed upon several times. I took up the offer of an envelope, no charge, in which I could hide my crisp and crinkling cash and thereby attempt to convince the ravenous hordes of footpads lurking outside I only had a plain white envelope secreted about my person and not a sizeable quantity of currency. The ruse worked, I’m delighted to report, as not one of the many masked potential desperados I saw in the street demanded money with menaces.

We eventually set off, but had driven hardly any distance when the ever so helpful information screen warned me I was in imminent danger of death as at least one of the car tyres was losing pressure. I spent £1 on what used to be called ‘free air’ on a garage forecourt, wondering why it seems to be an unbreakable rule that car tyre valves are always located at the bottom of the tyre, no matter how or where you come to a halt. Just once, let me avoid the stooping, groaning and complaining and let at least one tyre valve find itself in an easily accessible position. I called out the desired pressures to Marigold who had the rather less irksome task of checking the gauge attached to the pump. I could tell she was far more interested in watching two squirrels fighting on the grass than watching the gauge. It’s actually rather reassuring to know that despite allowing the tyre pressure to reach stratospheric levels the tyre didn’t actually explode.

Pressures set at correct levels and, more importantly, the new settings saved in the car’s memory bank, we set off again. Twenty-eight minutes gone, distance travelled less than one mile, not the ideal start.

We’d decided to stay overnight in Kent and get an early Channel Tunnel start on the next day. Our overnight hotel was perfect. All we ask is for beds that allow a decent night’s sleep, we don’t require spas, swimming pools or gyms. We were even to be given breakfast as part of the deal.

The receptionist looked at me rather strangely, almost as if she knew me from somewhere, but couldn’t make the connection. I must have missed enlightenment dawning on her expression, but when we arrived at our room number all was explained. 007, of course.

Expecting to be first through the dining room doors at 05.30 it was a bit of a shock to find at least ten diners already there. We had only just time to snaffle a mixed selection of offerings from the wide selection on offer in the buffet – I won’t offend you by describing the bizarre concoctions on our respective trays – when the place erupted. Two tables distant, in this Covid era that means about twenty feet away, a breakfast diner collapsed at the table, falling face first onto his plate. His wife screamed and wouldn’t stop screaming. The receptionist and three other guests dashed over.

As I was setting off to join them in rendering assistance, Marigold pulled me back. ‘There’s plenty of people there,’ she said, ‘what if he’s got covid?’

I went back to my seat. How the world has changed.

It wasn’t a heart attack, wasn’t Covid related either, he’d ‘only’ taken double the dose of his blood pressure pills by accident and ‘came over a bit whoozy’ the efficient receptionist explained on her way back to the desk.

‘Bet he wishes he’d eaten the beans first,’ said Marigold as the stricken victim was led away, his face covered in baked beans and tomato sauce. There’s a lesson there for all of us; always eat the messy bits of breakfast first. You just never know.

An elderly woman sat all by herself at a table right in the corner of the room. She’d been muttering, apparently to herself, for quite a while and I resolved to stay well clear, but as we rose to leave I saw she was talking to an equally elderly dog perched on a chair. She wasn’t actually stroking the dog, merely resting her hand on its head in the manner of someone testing a radiator for warmth while chatting away, but the dog seemed happy just to be noticed.

We arrived at the Tunnel and were sent off to join the queue for boarding. The U.K. passport check was fairly perfunctory, as was the examination of our vaccination status which I’d taken such care to present in as efficient a manner as possible.

The French-staffed booth twenty yards ahead was a very different matter. The official seated in his little office examined our brand new, unblemished passports with great suspicion. I suppose he thought they had been printed out on our kitchen table. Eventually and with an admirable flourish he ink stamped them to prove we were on our way to his country and waved us away.

Ten seconds later another official dashed out and ushered us to the dreaded inspection area. ‘Are you travelling with anything dangerous in your vehicle?’ I wisely decided to avoid any mention of Marigold, this was not the place for flippancy. Our door handles and steering wheel were swabbed, Marigold developing an uncontrollable fit of the giggles for reasons never revealed didn’t seem to be helpful and it was only after conferring with the rest of the posse for several minutes that we were allowed to proceed.

‘Loading complete’ the sign said, but we drove through the coned chicanes at great speed and a weary looking man reluctantly opened the door he’d just slammed shut and allowed us on board. Face masks are compulsory indoors in France and in crowded areas, outdoors as well. So far we haven’t seen even a single person flouting the rules. No mask, no admittance signs are everywhere and in the motorway services aires admittance to restaurants is possible only to mask wearing customers able to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for Covid. As triple-jabbed Brits we feel much safer here.

We decided to turn right on leaving the Tunnel, thereby choosing France rather than Belgium, Holland or Germany. The weather was a bit nippy so we thought heading towards the warmer bits of Europe would be the best idea. Almost immediately Marigold said, ‘what a shame, I really fancied going to Germany.’

As we had just joined a busy motorway it was somewhat of a moot point, but we had agreed (again) that heading towards the best chance of winter sunshine was the best idea by the time the first available opportunity to change direction arrived.

‘Not Paris, though,’ Marigold insisted. We’ve driven through the middle of Los Angeles, Rome, London, Marrakesh and many other notorious traffic hazards, but for some reason it’s always Paris that gets Marigold agitated. We agreed Paris was best avoided and set out on our usual bypass route through Rouen.

I always feel a bit sorry for Rouen. It sits astride the River Seine, just like Paris, has a Cathedral of Our Lady ( Notre Dame) which in many ways outshines its Parisian namesake as its spire is the highest in France. (151 metres, if you’re one of those people who simply must know all the details) and boasts dozens of pavement cafes and swish restaurants. Despite these attributes, given a choice between Paris, the City of Light, and Rouen nobody would ever pick Rouen for a romantic getaway.

We once spent an evening in Rouen at a restaurant alongside a group of complete strangers who were all representing Norwich, one of several cities ‘twinned’ with Rouen. On hearing another English accent they insisted we join their party. I like Norwich as a city, but it isn’t clearly evident what brought about this particular ‘twinning’ as the two cities appear to have so little in common.

This was most certainly the case with one of the female delegates who viewed everything ‘French’ with deep suspicion. Marigold often references this unfortunate woman if she’s drinking gin and tonic. The conversation in question was along these lines: ‘What are these bits in my glass?’

‘They’re juniper berries, Madame.’

‘Well, I asked for a gin and tonic, not a glass full of berries. Remove them at once.’

The waiter took away the offending glass and returned a few moments later with berries removed, but still had to withstand the customer’s tirade of disapproval for making unwanted additions to her desired order. The waiter’s patience was remarkable. It was the first of many occasions I realised I’m not cut out to be a drinks waiter. My forbearance levels are nowhere near the required standard.

Our route on this occasion took us alongside the left bank of the Seine where even on a bright sunny day, which wasn’t remotely the case on our visit, meant we were viewing Rouen at its least attractive. A dirty, industrial zone with dense traffic on the road and factory chimneys belching black smoke across the railroad tracks doesn’t do much to persuade a visitor to look closer for the hidden gems of the city.

After three hundred or so miles had gone by I was flagging and took a unilateral decision to seek out a hotel. Marigold agreed wholeheartedly* when I suggested the brightly lit interior of a Hotel Campanile would be just the place to organise a good night’s sleep.

*This ‘wholehearted agreement’ was to be rescinded very shortly.

‘Only 45 euros, that’s only about 40 quid,’ I said, triumphantly, as I returned to the car. ‘For a Campanile, that’s a steal.’

We soon found out there are many reasons for a hotel to be charging rather less than the norm. Mostly relating to cleanliness, space, standard of fixtures and fittings, the non availability of the promised Internet access, a heater that blew out only frigid air when the outside temperature was minus three, the list goes on and on.

Of course, we found each successive low point hugely amusing, but, as has often been remarked by others, we are rather strange people. The tray of sweets left for guests at the reception desk to help themselves was some sort of compensation. At least we won’t starve.

The Cathedral in Clermont-Fernandinho with the Puy de Domes in the background

Further into Mostly Undiscovered France

The next morning, after I had spent a night shivering under probably the thinnest duvet ever manufactured, Marigold announced she had had the best night’s sleep in years. life isn't fair. 

After de-icing the car windows, not had to do that for a while, we set off again along the almost empty A71 motorway that leads towards the wild and beautiful Massif Central. We were glad enough for a deserted motorway as a patch of dense fog persisted for the next 60 miles.

Decent weather emerged from the mists in time for us to savour the splendid vistas that make the Auvergne route one of the most scenic, yet unappreciated, drives in all Europe. The almost completely inhabited ‘middle bit’ of France remains virtually undiscovered by tourists. In fairness, its swooping contours, high moorland and deep, dark valleys can be gloomy places in bad weather. We’ve driven this route in the bitter cold of winter, through snow blizzards and howling gales, but when the sun shines it’s a wonderful place.

Clermont-Ferrand is quite a surprise, situated at the bottom of a very long descent into a valley that’s totally at variance with everything else in this whole region. This is a big, imposing city and for many years has grown expediently due to the presence of the mighty Michelin factory that we once drove past at a time of shift changeover. Hundreds, maybe thousands of workers exiting the main gates all at once and flowing around our car like a mighty river of humanity, it was quite a sight. Michelin still has its headquarters here and remains a big employer, but there’s a great deal of ‘high tech’ employment here nowadays.

Clermont-Ferrand is an ancient city with quite a history to it and we’ve spent many hours wandering its streets and alleys. The most imposing landmark, dominating the city, is the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de L’Assomption – hope I got the spelling right - which is visible from just about everywhere. It’s built of volcanic black lava rock and we were once in the city one misty morning where the black spired soared into view as if suspended in space. There’s a 12th century basilica here too, just a sample if the many ancient buildings that make up this intriguing city.

Elsewhere in this blog there are accounts of previous visits to the region, specifically the highest of the chain of dormant volcanoes that seem to be everywhere, the Puy-de-Dome so we didn’t linger on this occasion, but we did make a quick trip to nearby Le Puy en Velay whose historical importance belies its tiny size.

Le Puy was the departure point for medieval pilgrims making the long and arduous pilgrimage – if it was easy there would be no point in doing it – to Santiago de Compostella in the far off Galicia region of Spain, a tradition that’s lasted a thousand years and in recent times has seen a large upswing in popularity. It was actually in the Cathedral at Le Puy, in 1095, that Pope Urban 11 made the proclamation that began the First Crusade and set in motion a series of Religious Wars that were to last for hundreds of years.

Travelling on, across the the high limestone plateau we reached the area known as The Cévennes. This is no place for the faint hearted, it’s a wild and rugged area with dense forests, windswept hills and hardy farming stock eking out a living in this harsh environment.

Robert Louis Stevenson has been in the news lately, mostly because of his walk from Le Monastier in the Haute Loire, to St Jean du Gard in the south-eastern Cévennes. A distance of 156 miles, but ‘hard’ miles over rugged outcrops and lush valleys, Stevenson’s trek took place one hundred and forty two years ago, but there’s now an established walking route as so many people set out to recreate the feat.

The experience inspired Stevenson to write his first book: Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes , in 1879, one of the very first ‘travelogues’ and certainly predated the modern hiking movement. That slim volume was surely the first to present hiking as a recreational activity.

Walking for the sake of it.

I did suggest to Marigold we could return at some point to attempt the ‘Stevenson Trail.’ She wasn’t overly enthusiastic. As she remarked, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson had a donkey to do all the carrying, I’d only have you.’

It’s a fair point.

Stevenson commissioned a sleeping bag – quite possibly the first such item ever to have been considered as an essential requirement for a hiker - and bought a donkey named Modestine to carry his belongings. Having re-read the book fairly recently it was obvious that Modestine was more trouble than she was worth. Stubborn, obstinate, contrary, all the known traits of a donkey, Stevenson must have wished he’d travelled with less gear, minus a donkey, and made better progress.

We stopped for a picnic lunch at an Aire with bonus attractions, not just benches and tables for hungry travellers. We tried to find an isolated spot to reveal our feast – not just a Covid inspired reluctance to be near other people, but a very real fear of being upstaged. The French take al fresco dining seriously and arrive with enough food and wine to serve three times the number of participants while we serve up whatever assorted scraps we can find at the last minute. A feast on one hand, a pathetic excuse for a picnic on the other. I won’t give further details, just rely on the fact we had once again disgraced ourselves in the picnic stakes.

Having eaten, it didn’t take long, we went to look at a statue overlooking a distant castle and found so much more. Lots of metal sculptures in a meadow, the work of a well renowned French sculptor André Debru, alongside three ‘bothies’ and a Neolithic dolmen.

We’ve seen dolmens – is that the correct plural of ‘dolmen’ or is the final s superfluous – all over this region, most notably around one of Marigold’s favourite place names, Saint Affrique. We love ancient objects, Marigold insists I am one, and dolmens are especially highly prized. A dolmen, essentially, is little more than two or more vertical ‘megaliths’ with a flat stone laid on top. Most date from the early Neolithic era, making them in the region of 6,000 years old. Any object that survives for 6,000 years deserves respect.

They’re widely regarded as being burial chambers, but after such a timescale, in almost every case, only the stones remain. The Korean Peninsular has over 35,000 dolmens, about 40% of the global total. Why Korea? Nobody knows, or if they do, I’ve not heard any rational explanation.

Mysteries, especially ancient mysteries, never fail to interest us. Bridges are another of our interests, specifically feats of engineering required in erecting a structure suspended high in the air and this road, the A75 from Clermont-Ferrand to Beziers offers the opportunity to see two of Europe’s most remarkable engineering masterpieces at close quarters.

The bridge that spans a river valley at Garabit is nothing special by modern standards, but it was such a groundbreaking project that the name of the man responsible for its design and construction is familiar all around the world. Gustave Eiffel is best known for the legendary tower that still dominates the Parisian skyline, but his company also designed the Statue of Liberty which was built in the Eiffel workshops in Paris, then dismantled and shipped off to be reassembled in New York harbour.

What about a more modern example of the bridge builders’ art? Our driving down to South West France predates the ‘new’ motorway and our first glimpses of what would become a bridge over the Tarn at Millau never ceased to amaze us. The sheer scale of those concrete and steel towers, rising from the valley floor to an inconceivable height, only the word ‘gobsmacked’ does justice to our response.

The bridge was finally opened in 2004 and we first crossed over it in that very same week. It is the world's highest multi-span bridge, 900 ft above the valley floor at its deepest, and the longest suspended bridge in the world. The work of a British architect, too. Gustave Eiffel must be turning in his grave.

Two men held together by rusty nuts and bolts

Those shepherds obviously weren't very tall

A Dolmen

A different dolmen. Another place, another time

I'm amazed this one is still standing

Where Next? It's a Good Question.

We’re bound for the coast and on arrival will either turn left towards the Camargue and eventually, Provence, or take the western route towards Spain and Portugal. A coin toss may yet once again decide our destination and hence the ongoing nature of this expedition. Who knows, we may yet seek out some stout walking shoes and buy a donkey.

Quite right too

Fully jabbed or go hungry is the message here

One of Monsieur Eiffel's early works. He must have had the really big Meccano set for Christmas

Here's the big beast. Even from up here you don't get much idea of the sheer scale of the project. Viewed from below, it's a modern day wonder of the world