Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Walking The First Stage - Backwards ...

... and 593 days early.

Yesterday Gay and I walked what is almost certainly the first stage of VBW. But we walked it in the reverse direction, from Mirepoix to Puivert, 29 or 30 kilometres.

We have been wanting to do this for a while, but the difficulty was getting to Mirepoix so that we could set off walking. Of course we could go by car, and often do, but this would leave the car sitting 30 kms from home. The other long walks I have done have been when we have happened to be somewhere, such as Limoux, on other business, then Gay has driven home while I walked.

Public transport, I hear you say. To summarise the public transport available in Puivert. There is a bus service, which goes from Puivert to Quillan (16kms) every Tuesday morning, one way, and there is another bus which triumphantly returns from Quillan to Puivert on Friday afternoon. That's it - I can think of no reason why anybody should want to spend all that time in Quillan, but those are the arrangements.

Monday is market day in Mirepoix. We know of one couple who go to that market sometimes and we had been thinking of trying to catch a ride with them, but have not got round to it. But just lately a notice at the Mairie caught our eye. An enterprising taxi company from Chalabre has set up a taxi-bus service to take people to various markets on the appropriate days - and to bring them back the same day. We homed in on this and telephoned to reserve a seat to Mirepoix yesterday. The taxi will leave Chalabre (8 or 9 kms) at 9, so should be with you about half past, we were told. The taxi would come to the door.

The taxi arrived at 8.50, which is fine for us, but we know people who would not even be out of bed at that time for a scheduled 9.30 departure. We were pleased because it meant we could probably set off early for our 5-hour walk.

Off we set at breakneck speed down the road to Chalabre, which is very sinuous. It was all very alarming. From Chalabre, instead of taking the road to Mirepoix, we headed towards Limoux. Fortunately there was some slow traffic in front of us, which moderated our minibus and made life more comfortable. It also enabled us to observe some extremely alarming overtaking by other vehicles. Even our driver, clearly not averse to a bit of Lewis Hamiltonery, was zutting and throwing his hands in the air.

We turned off the Limoux road and had some exciting times down a single lane track to pick up an elderly woman and her son, then back down some more roads new to us, stopping once more for another woman, arriving in Mirepoix at about 10. Apart from the fact that we were itching to get some breakfast and start the long walk, it was all quite interesting.

I was amazed by the cost of all this. For the two of us, one way to Mirepoix, including the entertainment and tour of the countryside, the cost was 5 Euros. Considering the number of passengers, we can not believe that this service is profitable or that it will be available for long unless more use is made of it.

We went to the splendid boulangerie and bought our breakfast - a pain aux raisins for me and a croissant for Gay - took these to our favourite cafe (there are many in Mirepoix) on the square, had a quick look round the market, then, with a full fuel load, took off.

From Mirepoix to Chalabre the route was off-road, an old railway track. The total number of people we saw on the 21 kms of this track was 6 - 3 lone cyclists, a couple on a tandem, and a woman walking her dogs.

It was quite a warm day, the walk was uneventful, we stopped in the beautiful village of Camon to eat our sandwiches, again in Chalabre for a drink, and arrived home tired but happy, after 5 hours walking

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Of Mice and Men and American Foie Gras

Some of the smaller creatures manage to come into the house, of course. We have rustling in our roof space, especially when I am practicing my guitar – one could say that would make anybody restless. Until we managed to seal a gap between a beam and the ceiling wood, the rustling creature would every now and again send a shower of damp materials cascading into the room – presumably when hshe (another new pronoun which would cover doubts about gender - pronounce it the same as “she”, but it covers all angles, none of this “he or she” nonsense) felt it was time to clear out the nest.

We have been told that this is probably a loir (dormouse), because many houses in the area have these tucked away in various crevices – the houses are frequently very old – ours is over 200 years – and full of hidey-holes for creatures. But our house is 3 stories and I can’t imagine why a creature which feeds in the fields would want to climb all that way to deliver food to its young. I think it is a bat. There is a bright street light not too far from the house and, especially of a warm evening, the air around the lamp is replete with clouds of moths and other insects. A constant stream of bats - the Black Arrows – give an all-night display of aerobatics and feeding tactics. They must be very fat bats. They need somewhere to sleep during the day, while they dream of insects and other tasty morsels. We had our roof retiled a couple of years ago. There is a sort of plastic netting which is supposed to stop creatures from finding their way under the tiles, and either the netting is not fitted properly, or our bats are made of sterner stuff. Our guitar fan creature is obviously a bat, although clearly a tone-deaf one. Further proof is provided by the fact that on the odd evening when I both stay awake until after dark and summon up the energy to play my guitar, there is no rustling – the bat or bats are out on the town.

We have not been troubled by rats – fortunately, having seen the size of one of the local rats which dared to rear its ugly head in one of the Chalabre cafes while we were there one morning (speedily dispatched by the patron and triumphantly carried out to the dumpster in what must have been a special pair of rat-tongs). Nor have we seen any mice in the house until one day last year, when we had our baker friend Lorenzo staying with us – which may have sent sweeter aromas down the street, especially as Lorenzo also used to own and be the chef in an Italian restaurant. Whatever the reason, there was a mouse in the house and, being a close relative of Speedy Gonzales, it resisted all efforts to catch it or corner it so that we could return it whence it came.

As we are well versed in the Geneva Conventions as applied to mice, we wanted to catch it humanely and to release it behind its own lines. This resulted in an amusing incident down at the Gamm Vert, a store which supplies hardware equipment and some farming supplies. We doubted very much whether they would have a humane mouse-trap, in fact we expected to be laughed out of the shop – country types are not noted for their sentimentality. Gay, who speaks very good French, accidentally asked for a “siège” for the souris, instead of a “piège”. This caused some hilarity, because “siège” means armchair and “piège” means trap, which is what we were after. Amazingly, when the laughter died down, it transpired that not only did they have pieges, but they had the humane variety. Ingenious little device, which could trap the mouse without harming it, so that you could take it into the garden or field, open a door, and let it go. Assuming, or course, that you could get the creature to enter the trap. “Cheese”, I hear you say. Which is what I said, but Lorenzo said no, we should bait the trap with a little piece of bread smeared with peanut butter. “Works every time,” he said.

And he was right. Within five minutes of doing as he said, we looked at the trap and there was the tiny mouse. I took it into the garden and watched it bound away like a kangaroo – I’m sure its strides were a foot long.

A couple of days later, we had another mouse. At the time we had a bit of damage at the back of our fireplace, which opened up a small hole to the outside world. I suspect they were getting in there. Anyway, same story, bit of peanut butter, five minutes, the mouse was captured. The hole in the wall was mended soon after that and we have never seen a mouse in the house since. Unlike Gay’s sister in Australia, who had a bit of a mouse problem. We passed on the peanut butter advice to Dana and again the mouse was quickly captured. And the next one. And the next one. And so on. I think the score was approaching twenty, the last we heard. They must have had an awful lot of bakers in the house.

This is the time to open your eyes about peanut butter. It is difficult to find in France. And when you can find it, as in UK, it usually has too much sugar and/or salt in it. Impossible to find peanut butter without one or the other. Certainly difficult to find one to suit your own taste.

But it is amazingly easy to make peanut butter yourself. We found this out from Julia, the 9-year old American girl who lived next to us for a couple of months this summer. If you go to her father’s (Jonathan’s) blog, and look for the post entitled “American Foie Gras” you will get the recipe and you will never buy any peanut butter again. It takes five minutes, if that. Here is the address of the blog (in fact if you click on this it should take you direct to the item:


Enjoy! What I particularly like is that if you make peanut butter yourself like this, not only can you adjust the recipe to your own taste, but it doesn’t cling to the roof of your mouth like the commercial varieties do.

Just a couple more items of what Nicola calls my “Languedoc nature lessons”.

We quite often see squirrels. Again, they don’t seem to have much road sense and unfortunately many of them are dead. They are red squirrels – I don’t think the grey American invaders, so prevalent in Britain, have made it here – but they are such a dark red they are almost black. I don’t know whether that is because they are a different variety or whether it is as a result of something they eat.

Finally, snakes. As with our last home in Cyprus, there are plenty of serpents about. Some of them are huge - we have seen them several feet long. Once when we were having a nostalgic walk around the Puivert campsite we saw one coming out of a hedge, crossing one of the internal roads, and disappearing into another hedge. Its tail was barely out of the first hedge before its head had disappeared into the second. And its destination, on the other side of that hedge, was the emplacement where we had once stayed for a week or so, in a tent.

I think generally the bigger ones are harmless. But not so vipers, which are quite small. There are a lot of these about. In Coustaussa we once saw a writhing mass of them in a gutter. We have seen lots dead on the road. We have had live ones in our courtyard. We have had one in the house, which caused us to go out and buy one of those things which old people use to pick up their socks from the floor - a thing with a trigger at one end and a gripping thing at the other end.

Snakes generally are very keen to get away from humans, but one cornered in the house is a different matter. I whisked the first one out with a fly swatter - this obviously took lots of whisks or swats and the snake became angrier and angrier.

Again, we would prefer, if we capture one, to take it to a field and release it. But I think we could be lynched. The locals would think we were crazy – any other cornered snake we have seen has soon had its head removed by a spade.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

He's A Bird, Dog

This is a good area for birdlife. It would be virtually impossible to step out of a morning and not see lots of jays. They are very common. There are many smaller birds. I am not big on birds (although probably slightly better informed than a friend who refers to them as “flyey things” – Hello Mike) but we frequently have black redstarts in our yard and lots of tits in our conker tree. Various types of corvidae, including ravens, we hear these barking up in the sky.

It is rare to cast an eye heavenwards without seeing a buzzard, or hearing one or more, with their plaintive cries. Kites are very common. Increasingly regularly seen in this area are vultures which have been coming over the Pyrenees from Spain – we hear various explanations for that. Not far from the house every year now we see Egyptian vultures, black and white. I think they are migratory.

Carl and Diana, some Australian friends who used to live next door, were very keen on birds. They told us that on the Sault plateau, which rises to 1400 metres in the direction of Andorra, but again not far away, one day they saw scores of various types of raptor.

One spectacle we have missed so far is the roosting of the storks. I believe these storks live in northern Europe during the summer, building nests on top of chimneys and generally making themselves visually very prominent while they go about raising their young. They are big birds, which seem to be particularly fond of Germany. Every few years (possibly every year – we don’t see the press every day) the local newspapers carry reports and photographs of a visitation to the Aude by the storks on their way to Africa, or Lanzarote, or wherever they go to for their holidays). A couple of years ago it was Espéraza which was blessed by a score or so of storks, roosting on roofs or chimneys while they gathered their strength for the next day’s flight. A couple of weeks ago we read, and saw the piccies, about the same size of group which had rested overnight in Quillan. There are more hotels in Quillan than Esperaza, which is probably what brought about the switch.

We always hear about the storks after they have visited, which is a shame. It would be a fine sight to see.

The point I was making earlier about the aroma of the haylage is that on foot you smell, see and hear things that you would never experience in a car, and on these quiet white D-roads, minutes can go by without seeing or hearing a vehicle. It just gives a completely different perspective on life to hear the sounds of life of all sorts, wild and domestic.

Speaking of domestic animals I have recently been re-reading several books about long distance walks, including some in France. I keep reading that dogs are a big problem for walkers in France. I must admit that I have never really had much trouble with dogs and I do tend to think that they go for people who they can sense are afraid of them. That’s not to say that I would not be cautious with a strange dog approaching.

I once had an article published in the magazine which is now called Runner’s World. It was about the danger of being attacked by dogs and my basic recommendation was that you should take another dog with you, as a decoy. I don’t have a dog now but something I discovered some time ago – I can’t remember whether I read this or discovered it myself – is that if dogs are running towards you, barking and snarling as they do, you should pick up a stone, or appear to pick up a stone, there doesn’t have to be one there. If you do this, dogs turn tail and run yelping as if they have been hit. It has always worked for me and I have done it numerous times. Until recently. On one of my walks from Limoux to home, two dogs came running towards me and I did the stone trick. They didn’t take any notice. Fortunately, they were not nasty, they just dashed around me a little. They were friendly, which I think most dogs are anyway, when it comes to the crunch.

I certainly wouldn’t rely on that trick if a Doberman or Rottweiler or Pit-bull came charging towards me. I don’t know what I would do. I am getting the impression, more and more, that it would be wise to carry a stick. This is not something I have ever done and it would be an encumbrance, but I am thinking about it.

Does anybody know what the legal position is with carrying a tazer or a pepper spray? I remember the aforementioned Carl once telling me that he had seen tazers for sale in Andorra. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know whether I would be allowed to carry one here in France or in Britain, where obviously part of my walk will take me.

I’ll be interested to hear if anybody knows.

In the meantime, it has not escaped my attention that my daughters have 5 dogs between them, so I am considering a temporary loan of a sacrificial dog or two.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ready, Teddy?

More on the bear recently wounded in action. His (or is it her? I'll settle for hir, which I think is a word that should enter the language, it would do a great deal to get rid of the confusion which seems to reign these days about pronouns) name is Balou. That's funny, I thought they were all called Teddy - I recently read the very amusing story of how toy bears came to be named after President Roosevelt, and it was nothing to do with him being fond of them, in fact he was not fond of being called Teddy, either.

Attempts are to be made to capture Balou, using a kind trap. Presumably this is so that hir battle wounds can be assessed, or perhaps to pin on a Purple Heart. Hopefully it is nothing to do with extraordinary rendition, or being shipped off to Guantanamo.

Today's body count while I was walking 16 kms - one dead weasel, a dead snake, and a live pheasant, which jumped out of a field of corn, making a dreadful noise, presumably to draw my attention to the fact that today is a hunting day - just as well I did not have a gun, or even an inclination to use one. I had certainly heard shots, and seen hunting vehicles lurking in the byways.

There! There! Deer!

Continuing those posts which aim to give a picture of the area from which I will be setting off ...

We also get a lot of deer . There is more than one type, but the ones we see are cerfs, which are the same thing as red deer. I think in every possible direction we have gone from our house we have seen deer in the fields, in the roads, by the side of the road. Sometimes they are very close. A friend of ours crashed into one that lurched out in front of her car. It wrecked the front of the vehicle.

Once when I was going for a run early one Sunday morning I almost bumped into one. It was in the middle of the street, here in Puivert. It was outside the Chinaman’s house – the Chinaman is actually a Vietnamese, but he is known as the Chinaman. As I rounded a corner, it was standing there not too far away from me. It didn’t seem to care – I had stopped running - then it suddenly realised I was there and galloped off, but it was waiting at the next corner. Then it decided I was not going to go away and it disappeared. Or maybe it was trying to be my pacemaker?

There are a lot of deer, in pestilential numbers, and of course they are hunted as well.

I have already mentioned that we see badgers. Foxes are common. Pine martens are widespread. Only yesterday we saw a live pine marten, a dead fox, and a live dentist (last time for a while, I hope). On the higher ground there are marmots, although unfortunately we have never seen one.

And of course there are numerous smaller mammals rustling away in the undergrowth. A couple of days ago we found, while driving, a mole crossing the road. Considering what they do to our garden, I think it was a splendid demonstration of our charitable natures that we carefully avoided it. And yet again I was astonished at the small size of these creatures, seen in the light of the devastation they cause. And such beautiful fur.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Another large animal we have in the area is the sanglier, or wild boar. Gay and I used to, when running in the woods, come across herds of these – 20 or 30 – adults and young. We stopped or retreated until the herd had moved on because they can be very, very dangerous. The males in particular typically weigh 200 kgs and they can weigh 300 kgs - that's more than 4 times my weight! They are extremely strong and fast, they have those huge tusks and they can do a lot of damage to a human being or a car.

We also frequently see them in the fields or crossing the roads.

When we were taking my daughter and her husband to the airport recently, early in the morning, while it was still dark, I had to brake because a boar was crossing the road not far in front of us. Just as well I slowed, because another boar decided to follow the first, about 5 metres in front of the car. I had to brake very sharply to avoid hitting it.

I have also seen the sangliers while I was out on foot. In the hunting season of course. I heard dogs barking and people shouting in some woods down below the road I was walking along. A bit further on I could see the edge of these woods. A boar burst out into the field, crossed it, climbed the bank, crossed the road in front of me and went into another field and away. The barking and shouting continued in the woods – the hunters obviously not realising their prey had escaped. It is not the only one I have seen at close quarters on the road.

We have been told that in France there are four million sangliers. In this department alone – Aude – there were 10,000 killed in the last hunting season, so you can see how widespread they are.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Can You Bear It?

While walking this morning I was hit once again by the strong aroma of silage. Something you wouldn’t notice while in a car. Or is it called haylage? What you get with those huge rolled up whirls of hay which are then enclosed in plastic. By the way, I saw a machine doing that one day, it’s absolutely magic. Something like one of those jugglers who lie on the floor, lift a colleague on to their feet and whizz them round and round, rotating on two axes at the same time. Or something like that giant spider in "Lord of the Rings", which had the hobbit neatly packaged before you could say "Miss Muffet".

The haylage sits in the sun stewing away inside the plastic. Even though it is completely wrapped you get this very strong very sweet smell of the fermentation that’s going on inside there. Animals, with their sense of smell, must whiff it from much further away. So when the farmers unwrap it for use in winter or in times of drought the critters must go absolutely berserk at this stuff. They probably salivate all summer at the prospect.

And fermentation produces alcohol, does it not? Is it a myth about mad cow disease, then? After all, another name for it is the staggers. Maybe they are just drunk, or, as a good friend of mine would say, "gassed as a carrot". I once read that something like 60% of the road accidents in Sweden are caused by drunken elk, which have picked up fallen fruit, which has then fermented inside them.

Speaking of strength of smell of animals, one of the animals we have in this area, although not in great numbers, is the bear. When I first heard this, brown bear, I thought smallish animal, obviously a wild animal and not to be approached but I didn’t realise at the time that we were talking something which stands 9 feet high at the shoulder, can run as fast as a racehorse, and which can smell you from 10 miles away, presumably only when the wind is in the right direction (for him!).

Maybe there is some technical difference between this bear and the grizzly but I don’t think that matters to the consumer or the consumed.

They had more or less been hunted to extinction here. The last natural denizen was shot – accidentally, of course, a few years ago. The powers that be have reintroduced these bears by importing some from Slovenia. They were released in the Ariege, which is quite a big department next to us – in fact the border between Aude and Ariege is about 3 kms up one of the hills which leads out of Puivert in the direction of Foix and eventually Biarritz. The bears were released at the other end of the department, near Andorra or Spain.

We read in the paper a few weeks ago that one of these bears had been seen in Rennes le Chateau which is only 10 miles away or so from us, as the crow flies, well inside the Aude. When they were released they were fitted with radio collars so that their movements could be tracked. This one has been wandering around over a very wide area – it was located in Pamiers – 50 kms in the other direction – only a few days earlier. They think it is, as it would be, looking for a mate. We all need somebody to love.

There was another item in the newspaper last week. I don’t know whether it was the same bear, but somebody had “accidentally” shot it, It’s alive, but they are keeping an eye on it. There are big pro and anti-bear movements because farmers, of course, say the bears kill their flocks and other people think that bears are part of the natural fauna of the area – even these reintroduced ones - and should be left to go about their business and that the price of that should be accepted. In the Ariege, one frequently comes upon huge signs painted on the road - "No to the Bears!", "Yes to the Bears!" It must be important - these signs are even bigger than those painted on the roads to encourage riders in the Tour de France.

Friday, September 19, 2008

High Finance and Low Piracy

This is nothing to do with the main subject of the blog - walking - but I thought you might be amused by a quick glance at this:


It is the blog of our American friends Jonathan and Kerri, who were our neighbours for a while this summer, but who have now returned to their home near Nice. Their posting today is about the current upheavals in the world financial system and the effect of this on the poor ordinary investor.

Look for "So what's in your portfolio" which is currently the post you will see if you open the blog. I just hope Jonathan is not being serious!

A couple of posts ago, he describes how the family recently went looking round luxury yachts on show in Nice - I'm sure that was all a preparation for today - International Talk Like A Pirate Day. No doubt he has seized one of the yachts by now - or maybe he was deterred by M Sarkozy's swift action on that subject earlier in the week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sad Sack In The Corner Weeping All Alone

I have tried to refrain from saying anything about the first comment entered on my previous post - Paradise Found. From the hundreds of people who know of this project, this is the only example of nastiness and ill-will. I know who wrote it and I am sad to say that I am not surprised.

I shall still avoid any mention of the fragile mental condition of the person concerned but I thought a refresher course may be required on the purpose of blogs.

There are millions of blogs. They are online diaries. Therefore they are almost always written in the first person. Does that mean millions of egocentrics? If so, does it take one to know one?

This is the diary of a major event in my life, from conception to achievement, I hope. The purposes of the blog are:

1. For me to keep a record of my thoughts and actions and of the walk itself when (and if) it takes place. For my own benefit and also because, before I started the blog, I was getting so many questions about it from friends, that I believed the blog, by putting all the information available online, would save me writing scores of lengthy, similar e-mails. It has worked in this respect.

2. To give an opportunity to friends - and even some relatives - to offer constructive advice and help. This has proved effective. All other comments and advice, mainly received by e-mail or in person, rather than left as comments on the blog, have been constructive, helpful and friendly. Until now.

3. To preserve in one place all information on the project - even this type of nastiness - as the basis of a book. And yes, I am already a published author. I have not yet approached a publisher about this project but will do so nearer the time. If I do not find an interested publisher I shall have my own record of the event.

As to whether the walk will take place, I am quite aware, and have clearly stated in previous posts, that there are things, especially of a medical or physical injury nature, which could stop me. Either before I start or during the walk.

I know that, but what I do not know is why anybody would be so bitter about the world that they should hope (clearly, despite dressing it up with mealy-mouthed words about bets and FAQs) that I will fail.

As an e-mail correspondent said to me today:

"I don't know what to say. My flabber is well and truly ghasted. What a bizarre reaction. And even if he thinks you won't do it or whatever, could he not just have kept it to himself? He's the one who looks an *rse though, isn't he?"

I'm Walking, Yes Indeed I'm Walking

Today I walked the 30 kms from Limoux to home again. When I did this two weeks ago it was after a visit to the dentist - same again today. Two weeks ago I accidentally picked the hottest day of the year - today was a fine day but the temperature stayed in the twenties. And, cunningly, in between the two walks I spent 6 days in Italy, where the temperature was over 35 degrees with very high humidity. So today it didn't seem so hot.

I still managed to arrive home weighing 2 kg less than when I got up this morning, despite breakfast, lunch, a cup of tea, two cups of coffee and a litre of water. The loss is all water, of course. I will have to watch that - all my athletic life I have been told I do not drink enough. I have survived, but I have never done a 70-day event before.

I noticed last time that there is now a cafe in Bouriège, at 12 or 13 kms into the walk. This is new. Today I stopped for a coffee. I took this outside, where two men and a woman were at one of the tables. I sat at the other. I was immediatedly engaged in conversation by one of the men.

"Where do you come from?"

"England," I said.

"Good answer, but ..." It was now clear he meant where had I come from today.


"And you go to?"

"Puivert". He goggled. Gitane in one hand, glass of beer in the other. Not a distance man, then.

"Why, why do you walk?" said Erik, for this was he.

I explained that I liked walking. Further questioning elicited my plans for VBW. He leapt to his feet and shook my hand. This is not the first time I have had this reaction. How unlike the home life of our own sad commenter on my blog!

Erik turned to the other man and woman and told them what I intended to do. The other man said, "A pied?" (on foot?). I confessed that this was true. He whistled. The woman whistled too. Erik said she was a perroquet (parrot). The second man told me "Congratulations". Casting aside for a moment my egocentric infection, I pointed out that it was a little early for congratulation - so far it was only a plan.

"You'll be doing this at 70 years? What's your secret, then?" says Erik. He held up the fag and the drink. "You don't smoke or drink?" I admitted I didn't smoke and that I had never had a glass of beer in my life, but that I do drink wine with food.

I had finished my coffee and was ready to go. The traiteur's (butcher's) van arrived, directly in front of our tables. The other three and the people from the bar hurried to the van. What would these small French villages do without the traiteur and other mobile shops?

I was saying goodbye and walking away when the traiteur opened up the side of the van and the meat caught my eye. I told Erik that if I did have a secret, maybe it was that I was a vegetarian. "Ah, I understand," he said, tapping the side of his nose.

Last time I did this walk I could find no shade to stop and eat my lunch. Now the sun has moved on south and there was the occasional patch of shadow. I found one which included a bridge with low walls where I could sit, feet in the road (once again very little traffic after the first few kilometres), while I took out my sandwiches. This was very appropriate - I had a bridge at each end of me - my visits to the dentist recently have been because I had to have one of my front teeth removed because of an abscess which had eaten away the bone - I have for some weeks been porting a temporary bridge instead and today I had the definitif version fitted.

My sandwiches were magnificent. Avocado, humous and tomato. Before we left for Limoux at 8 this morning, Gay made the humous, she had already made the bread, and she had grown the tomatoes herself. Only the avocado was shop-bought. Watch this space, she can turn her hand to anything.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Paradise Found

I promised to tell you more about Puivert, where I live, and from where I will be starting to walk backwards through my life.

My youngest daughter, Nicola, was a student at Bologna, the oldest university in the world. Then she decided to live in Italy. This was a country I had never visited, so it was obviously time to rectify that. In 1991 Gay and I (who lived in Cheshire, England, at the time) drove across Europe on our first visit to Nicola's first Italian home. On the way back we made a small (!!) detour.

We had recently read a book which described the mediaeval walled city of Carcassonne in Southern France. This seemed to be worth our investigation, so instead of driving straight back to UK from Italy, we went via Carcassonne. We know very well now that this meant driving all three sides of an equilateral triangle, all three legs of the journey being approximately 1000 miles. But it was worth it. Carcassonne is an amazing sight. You can easily find details of it on t'Interweb so I will say little more about it.

We spent a little time exploring south of Carcassonne, but the weather was bad so we did not see so much. Enough, though, to decide that we needed to come again. Which we did the next year, and the next year, and so on.

We soon discovered that the area is absolutely soaked in history and mystery. One of many aspects of this is the story of the Cathars, a peaceful branch of the Christian religion, which, in the 11th and 12th centuries, was gaining so many adherents that it was seen as a threat to the Catholic church. The pope got togetherwith the French king, who rather fancied the territory, because at that time the Languedoc was not a part of France. Between them they organised a crusade to crush the Cathars and their supporters, and to integrate Languedoc into France. The crusade went on for 30 years. Again, it is very easy to find information about this so I will not spend too much time on it.

One thing I will mention is that the Inquisition was invented at this time, in this area, for the express purpose of rooting out and burning Cathars. One rarely hears the word Inquisition without the adjective Spanish. But that was 200 years later and the Spanish were merely using a tool which had already efficiently wiped out a belief. The operation went on for the duration of the crusade and for long after, until there were no Cathars left.

I think it is also worth pointing out that the Languedoc was one of the most prosperous and cultured areas in Europe, second only to Byzantium, at that time. The culture and the prosperity were destroyed by the Crusade and its aftermath, and the area has never recovered that position.

There are many more layers to the fascinating history of the area. There are still visible traces of the Visigoths, those sackers of Rome, who had their Western base not far from our home.

All this in an area of stunning natural beauty, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

It was on our second visit to the area that we found Puivert, a village 50 kms south of Carcassonne. Together with its 10 or so satellite hamlets, it has a total population of maybe 1000. On some motoring maps, even motoring atlases, you will not find Puivert marked.

We returned to the area every year, camping either in a tent or in a motor caravan. Puivert campsite, with its wonderful view of the chateau de Puivert, was one we regularly used as a base. At the time, the area, not far north of the Spanish border, was not on the tourist trail. We very rarely heard an English voice or saw an English registered car. In the past 7 years or so, Ryanair, with its cheap flights, has changed all that and many of their customers have bought property in the area.

After several years of visiting, we had not given much thought to living in the area, or in France. In fact, in 1995, having decided to live abroad, we decided on Cyprus. We lived there in the winters, but still had our house in Cheshire and returned there in the summers. Or maybe I should say we were based there. Because we still spent weeks every year in the area of France that is now our home. We were captivated by it and it was not long before we took the plunge and bought a house which was, we understand, built by a drum major in Napoleon's army. Soon after this we sold the English house.

We are 500 metres above sea level. From one of our roof windows we can see the mediaeval castle. From our bedroom window we can see the plateau at 1000 metres, where 400 members of the Resistance were camped out during the Second World War, supplied from the air by the Royal Air Force and able to see, from their great height, if the occupying German army were approaching. There is a huge amount of visible history in the area, in spectacular settings. The roads are quiet, the weather is generally kind, without the stifling heat often found at lower altitudes. The local population has always treated us with the utmost kindness and courtesy.

We love the winters we now spend in New Zealand (3 months at a time) but it is becoming increasingly hard to tear ourselves away from what still seems, after 17 years of visiting, and 11 years of residence, like Paradise.

There is much more I could say but I think blog entries should generally be short, so I will return to the subject in later posts.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Take me to your leader

I mentioned earlier that I have this spooky software which tells me where in the world the blog's readers are.

My latest information is that there is a very good readership of it in Europe and North America, Australia and New Zealand. I am also surprised but pleased to see several readers in India. The one that really delights me is in Korea. I was reading in the newspaper, only yesterday, a theory that Kim Jong-Il, the strange leader of North Korea, has actually been dead since 2003. There was a long period during which he was not seen at all and any fleeting glimpses since then have really been a stand-in.

But what if this theory is wrong? What if he is, instead, like much of the world, an Internet junky? Drugged by his Dell or Linked to his Lenovo? Transfixed by his Toshiba?

I offer in evidence a blip on my screen. Unfortunately, the software does not yet give me a photograph, or name, rank and serial number. Sighs of relief? Don't be smug - that is presumably the next step - it already supplies the IP address of the computer used!

Fortunately I am too much of a technoprat to be able to follow that through. So, if you are not spending enough time reading my blog, I don't yet have the wherewithal to come rattling your cage about it.

The Underpants Letter

Had a revelation this morning. It came in the following e-mail from Robyn and John Davies in New Zealand. They are just back from 10 weeks in North America :

We are back in cold little NZ after 10 weeks of sun (only 2 wet days while on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia). Highlights - USA Olympic Trials for Track & Field at Eugene, Wyoming history for 3 weeks, and seeing our grandson of course. Loved seeing the Tour de France in full on TV instead of our short clips for the day style, and seeing Michelle Obama's speech to D Convention in full. What a stir up now with Sarah Palin - I never met an American woman who was going to vote for her though!

We were receiving your blog but didn't open it, as usually on "10 min only" stints at a local Library, until we arrived home last week. We are thoroughly enjoying it and will have some queries as soon as we can communicate with the site.

One comment comes to mind - we met 2 young guys doing the Pacific Crest Trail - Mexico/Canada - when they had been going for over 2 months. They had allowed for shoes and sox but never realised they would wear out 4 pairs of shorts and underpants in that time - crutch, and where pack moved on the small of the back!

That's stunning! I hadn't thought of that one. I have a feeling this e-mail - The Underpants Email - it has such a ring to it - could go down in history with the Zinoviev Letter or the Epistles of the Apostles.

However, I am convinced that my sturdy French knickers will be up to the challenge. And, although the memory is dim, I am sure that students have far more going on in their underpants than a 70 year old man. I think John will back me up on that one as we are only a few days apart in age.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Paradise - trailer

We have my eldest daughter, Karen, and husband Kenny staying for a few days. It is only the second time we have managed to entice them here as they have many other demands on their time, which we understand.

So you will understand that we are giving them our full attention.

But in the next few days I will tell you about Puivert and the region where we live, what brought us here, and why we shall never leave. We have heard first-time visitors use the word "Paradise" to describe it - a word we have only heard used to describe one other place, which is New Zealand, a country where we are privileged to also spend much time.

Watch this space!

More about Shoes

We are going to America over the election period to witness what promises to be, one way or the other, an historic presidential election. We shall be staying with our friends Lorenzo and Jane in Evansville, Indiana.

I mentioned in an earlier post "Are you ready, boots?", that I intend to walk in the extremely comfortable, lightweight, trouble free under rigorous testing, Columbia Trailmeister IV shoes. I also stated that it is difficult to find these in Europe. As it happens, I did manage to find some on the Internet the other day, at 60 pounds sterling per pair, plus postage. I also found some in USA for the equivalent of 30 pounds sterling per pair, no postage if I had two pairs.

So it seems sensible to get a couple of pairs delivered to Lorenzo for me to pick up while we are there. Yes, I know I said I could get some in New Zealand and/or Singapore next winter, and I shall still do so. But I don't know, when I step up the training, just how long each pair will last me so it would seem sensible to stack some up.

I e-mailed Lorenzo to ask him if he would be happy with me having the shoes delivered unto his guardianship. He replied thusly:

No Problem – what shoes are you choosing for long walk and why?

He also said:

Only 70 days till election – we hope our man wins – the Republican smear machine in full operation. We shall look forward to sharing one of the great moments in US history with you. Go Obama.......

I had to slap his wrist a bit and refer him to the above previous posting about shoes. But we really do agree about this history bit. At the time it will probably seem even more important than the shoes. But then I will come back down to earth and thank Gert for the Trailmeisters. They really are most excellent.

Despite the wrist-slapping, Lorenzo still agreed to take delivery and I have ordered the shoes.

How to leave a comment on the blog

Had this e-mail this morning from our lovely friend Adele in Rome:

Hi all -I have tried and tried to contribute to THE BLOG -what the ell am I doing wrong. I write but it doesn't want to know-help this poor computer cripple.

Basically I can see you now pioneering accross the plains so to speak-I really liked the idea of the horse drawn caravan -romantic -enviro friendly-extra company-what more could you want and at the right pace.

Have forgotten to say -think VBW is a great idea! a journey's journey. You pen such a good tale -publishing an account would be a fine thing. You 2 look great on the blog of American friends. And you're such busy bunnies- an inspiration all round.

Big hugs and as they say have a nice one.


Adele is a New Zealander, married to an Italian, Lorenzo. We met them as friends of my daughter Nicola, but they are very much friends of ours now. We even visited Adele's mother in New Zealand before she herself moved to Rome.

Believe it or not, I have never left a comment on my own blog, but in case anybody else has difficulties, I believe this is what should be done, and this was my reply to Adele:

Hello Adele

We hope you are all blooming. Now listen up about this here blog business. You go to the post you want to comment on. Underneath, where it says "comments" (it may say 0 or 1 or more comments) you click on that - on 0 comments, or 1 comments, or whatever. A screen opens which, if there are already some comments, will show those on the left hand side. On the right hand side will be some boxes. In the big box, you put your immortal words.

There is a box for word verification, which means you have to type the same letters as the squiggly letters into the appropriate box. You will also find this sometimes on websites where you buy things - it may seem daft but I have found out what it is for. There are machines which scour the internet, looking for other peoples websites to insert their own adverts or other malicious stuff in - these machines can not read squiggly letters then type them, only humans can do this, so it is a sort of password to exclude these machines. I always used to think it was a waste of my valuable time to type in a password which they were already showing you, but this is it, the truth revealed. You read if here first!

You then click "Open ID" and type your name in the box under it.

Then you click on "publish your comment".

Then I get an e-mail telling me you have done it. And your words are immortalised in the blog - except I can delete them if they are too scurrilous or if I just happen to be in a bad mood.

I shall now go off to bask in being an inspiration.


Vic and Gay

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Looking Back

I said I would report back on the rear-view mirror attachment, which I have been testing on my cycling helmet, with a view to using it while walking.

I have to say that I am very disappointed. It is virtually useless to me. It wobbles about when the bike goes over even slightly uneven roads. It is very difficult to align it so that I can see behind and to the left of me, then it moves at the slightest touch, so that it is no longer aligned correctly. The instructions that came with it say that it can be tightened with an allen key but I'm damned if I can see where. It's other major failing, although this may be one of mine, is that my eyes focus beyond it. It is too close to me.

In several road trips, I have never yet managed to see a car approaching, which is what it is for.

It is a bit of a talking point, though. Several people have asked me what it is, although I would have thought it is pretty obvious. Yesterday morning we bumped into our doctor in Chalabre (we were off our bikes at the time, so there was no major damage). He said, "What is that for?" I'm afraid that it was only later that I realised I should have told him I am a dentist. So as well as its other failings, it doesn't sharpen my wit.

So I am going to remove it from the helmet. Eventually, I will try it on the peak of my walking hat, which has a longer peak, so the mirror should be further away, and it may be possible to get the thing into focus and more useful. I won't do this at present because there are a limited number of double-sided sticky pads supplied. One of these would have to be sacrificed every time the hat is washed, so this is an experiment I am storing up for nearer the time of VBW.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

La Rentree

Gay is ecstatic. We have just been out for a bike ride (a 20 kms circuit which is also one of my walking routes). While we were at the highest point, a badger crossed our paths, no more than 5 metres in front of us. We have seen plenty of dead ones here (no wonder, if that is the extent of their traffic sense) but this is the first live one - and so close! Unfortunately, we did not have the French word for badger, so were not able to convey our excitement to people at the cafe where we regularly stop for a drink on this ride. We now know that the word is blaireau - it should be easy to remember that because it is similar to a feeling many people in Britain have had for some years - Blair! Oh no!

I also learned a lesson, or was reminded of one, which will serve me well in VBW. Today is the rentree - the day when kids, large and small, all over France, return to school after a two month break. This particular rentree, various changes are taking place in the education system. One is that they are moving onto a four-day week. Until now they have had Wednesday off, but Saturday has been a schoolday, if only in the morning. You can imagine how that Saturday morning has messed up everybody's weekend - it has been very unpopular, but now it has gone.

They still have Wednesday off. The history of that is quite interesting. When church was being separated from state, just over 100 years ago, the churches obviously felt they were the losers, especially in the matter of access to young minds. So, as a sop, it was agreed that children would not go to school on Wednesdays and the churches could have them then (if they could catch them). This still applies.

But what the rentree reminded us of, in relation to cycling and the Big Walk, is that, although the roads become noticeably less busy at the beginning of September, there is a surge of traffic between 8 and 9 in the morning. So that is a time to avoid. I shall have to carefully plan each day, and each overnight resting place, so that I can start walking at 6.30 or 7, reach a strategically placed boulangerie and a cafe at about 8, stop, mange, drink, read the papers, ruminate, stretch, then set out again en route.

I hope to finish each days leg before lunch, or at least before the end of lunchtime (12 till 2 in France), for similar reasons. I may have mentioned before that it is very common here to have a bottle of wine with lunch. So the road is a more dangerous place in the early afternoon. Visibly it is obvious that many drivers are trying to improve their fuel economy - the number of near misses per litre (of wine) being the crucial measure of success.

I realise that there should be accents in some of the above French words, but I have not yet discovered how to apply them to the script in this format.