ELSEWHERE 2010: The Ardèche. Balanced world

Lyon in transit A cup of coffee (une grande crème): €2.50 ($A3.75)

Mr Ryan saw us safely to Lyon. The ash cloud was still threatening but the airlines had decided that the governments were being unduly cautious and anyway they were losing a fortune. The vapour trials over Rome were proof of that.

It was May Day and things were quiet. We went for a pleasant walk with, in the back of my mind anyway, some interest in what would happen next, just how we would get to La Mastre. We could certainly get to Tain L’Hermitage, but the train to La Mastre which would have been great hadn’t run since 2008 and the bus time tables were clearly about school days even if we knew where the stop was. Taxi. Big bucks, but door to door. Two candidate companies failed but the third came through; and I must say taxis, those much maligned tourist rip-off taxis, provided impeccable service everywhere we used them.

As it was, the train did the right thing, the taxi was waiting exactly as requested and the longish drive along the gorge of the river Doux was a real pleasure. We were heading to La Mastre about 140 kilometres west but mostly south of Lyon in the Region of the Ardèche. This was the starting point for a walk shaped like a figure 8 with a tail. It would normally start from Lecrestet but the Lecrestet hotel people wanted their Mayday holiday.[1]

We chose this walk because we wanted a walk in France, we hadn’t been to the Ardèche before and didn’t know anything about it, and what was offered sounded about the right length (130 k.s, 7 days walking, one rest day) and level of difficulty (I’d say medium, I’ve forgotten what Sherpa said). Roman sandwichesI didn’t say much about the food in Italy (some unmentioned was sensational; click on the photo to the left), but it’s France and I would be lying if I said we weren’t also attracted by the prospect of quality regional cuisine.  IMG_1424 The Ardèche A cup of coffee (une grande crème): €1.80 ($A2.70)  IMG_1397.JPG

We arrived at the Hotel des Negociants in a light drizzle and I strolled downtown looking for some lunch and to see what was what. The meerkat had finally run out of energy and was having a snooze.

Downtown La Mastre on a Sunday morning is a quiet affair. Everyone has been to church[2] and then they’re off to hear the 40-piece town band playing in the square. 1The band La MastreThey weren’t much good but they were extremely well received and looked like they were having a lot of fun which is how I imagine playing in a big band to be. The photo won’t show this but the town was out to listen, yelling out requests not all of which were ignored. The last number included a trombone solo from a 40 year-old gent with slightly over-egged good looks and he played until exhausted, not long, and that was the end. Then off for Sunday lunch.

I sat on the steps of the band shell for a while trying to locate just where I was, something else that can happen to travellers. But I found a boulangerie open and we did well from the result. In the afternoon we strolled around the very quiet town and found where we were supposed to leave from (the auberge ‘The Calm Mother’! See below) and looked at the gorgeous stone houses and gardens.

The 70 year-old woman who runs the H. des N. was not a mamma. She was a Madame with a whip crack tone that had her minions trembling. Her 30 year-old daughter-in-law seemed to be doing most of the work. The daughter-in-law had three children including one who was three months old and a bad sleeper. She did the rooms and the cooking and was a very nice person when she wasn’t exhausted. Her husband seemed to be mainly on child care in so far as he was on anything.

There are parts of rural France that don’t quite appear to be a part of the modern world and the H. des N. was one of them. No computer. Not one. Amazing. That said, we sat down for dinner. Crudités, pintadeau roti avec marrons, tarte Ardèchoise et legumes, followed by les startlingly good fromages et pour M’sieur, une coupe d’Ardèchoise[3]. And it may sound disgusting but I remember also having some quail terrine that night. I’m not going to go on about food all the time. Promise. As may have been inferred, the spécialité regionale is chestnuts.

The rain had gone in the morning and the weather bade fair. This was a long day which included a simple height gain[4] of 960 metres and an aggregate height gain which was heaps more, lots of ups and downs. I hadn’t really wanted to start with the hardest day but there wasn’t much choice and we had had plenty of walking practice in Rome. 2The start (next to The Calm Mother)IMG_1407.JPG

The start of the start was a stiff climb of about 600 metres up out of the Doux valley, but the first 10 k.s were simply a delight, charming and seductive. The climb offered excellent views across the valleys to St Etienne in the north, the only minor mishap being Myrna trying to electrocute herself on an electric fence while photographing black pigs.

The track continued as it began with lots of navigation required: so many options, little waymarking and such specificity. ‘Behind the house on the left you will find two options. Take the track which appears to begin as a farm track with three stone piles to the right and then veers left through forest … .’ The notes were generally good but slumped in quality according to the difficulty of the problem.

On the way home in the plane looking at the line-up of recumbent bodies with overfull bellies at an indecipherable time mid air it occurred to me that air travel and walking are profound antitheses. However enjoyable, air travel is the last word in artificial experiences. That’s what suits the frequent flyer. On the other hand, Myrna says you don’t walk for a day, you walk through a day, meaning I hope that you are conscious of the terrain, the weather, the time, the surroundings, the task in a way that no other form of travel matches. It’s all there with you all the time, just er hem you and the track, and off you go. That’s it. You’re not judging your form or effort; you’re just off walking for a day. There isn’t anything else. And if you wanted a day to persuade someone of the delights of walking this was surely it. Narrow tracks soft under foot through chestnut forests, gorgeous long views, sunny warmth, animals, farm houses, rolling hills.The first town was Nozières and the one shop which was open (of three) had bread, cheese, ham and juice — everything you could want in other words. IMG_1427 IMG_0469I was wearing a T-shirt and my arms were becoming sun burnt. We were going well and at the foot of the Col de Buisson it was time to eat. As often in a saddle, there was a bit of wind here with a bite to it. An old man and his dogs were gesturing at us from across the way and we gestured back. Later we realised we had come to a tourist attraction, Mini-ville (a bit hard to see but it is at right), something he had probably had a hand in building, but we kept our five euros in our pocket and ploughed on up the Col to a high ridge. This was interesting because the forest had been badly knocked around by storms but also by a bush fire, not something you automatically associate with rural France.IMG_1433It was also interesting because the temperature had dropped ten or so degrees, black clouds were massing in the west, it was spitting and I had left our rain gear with our luggage because I was sure we wouldn’t need it, and the ridge at almost 1300 metres was becoming increasingly exposed.

This is another story about walking. It’s quite easy to muck things up when you’ve got your head down just forging along. You don’t get your map out, forget to read your notes, don’t put your gloves on when you need to (if you’ve got them) and before you know it … etc.

It seemed unlikely that we could make a mistake here because there was only one track, a forest road along the crest of the ridge, but we had to get off it, and according to our notes there was a cairn which signalled a left turn to locate a track which would take us down to another saddle. A cairn. A cairn could be anything. You could kick it over in a small fit of pique. Anyway, we missed it and suddenly found ourselves in a welter of logging tracks none of which were on the map.IMG_1428 Below us in the valley was a town which I was sure was Lalouvesc, our destination. I was out by about 90 degrees. We did get off the ridge eventually but it was a five or six k. mistake and as well it was getting quite cold. We found the right road and as sometimes happens — a fair bit really — there’s another hour of walking when you think you should be there. And it’s uphill. And you’re not completely 100 percent exactly sure just where you are. IMG_1435.JPG

Lalouvesc is built on the lip of a cliff and seems to have been some sort of staging post/ tourist resort for ‘taking the air’ since at least the mid 16th century. One of the hotels we passed had been there in one form or another since 1538.

That wasn’t our hotel. Ours had fewer stars (a generous one and half), but it did have a bath and after walking 30 k.s a bath is desirable. France has great engineers and several had been at work on the arrangements for getting water into this bath, but unfortunately at cross purposes. A trickle of tepid water was the best it could do until, after some considerable time and largely by chance, I found another button that activated what could be called a flow. Very tired that night and not detained by whatever there was on the television. My notes say: Très froid tonight. And so it turned out to be.

We woke up in good time, pushed the shutters back and it was snowing. Remember the sunburn the day before? Yes. I couldn’t believe it. Snowing. In early June! What would that mean for our progress? While we now had our wet weather gear along with warm clothes I had left our hats and gloves back at La Mastre certain we wouldn’t need them. IMG_1439

We ate petit déjeuner alone but for the cats in a huge dining room looking out at the snow which seemed to be increasing in intensity by the minute, big floaty flakes which largely melted when they hit the ground turning into something more driving and dense. An unseasonal orage, a storm, with winds of up to 140kph. Myrna was not as delighted as she was to become, but completely undaunted.

We geared up and went looking for the entry to the track. This was completely invisible. I was thinking about the intelligibility of: Madame, le chemin a disparu complètement. Nous voudrons voyager à St Bonnet avec les bagages s’il vous plait.[5] But la femme de bon courage made an executive decision that we would follow the D532 to St Bonnet (correct name St Bonnet le Froid; that’s true) which had the advantages at least of secure direction, once we had worked out with certainty that we were correct, and secure footing. The modest disadvantages were walking on tarmac and dodging the (very few) cars and trucks going past. The gentleman we asked for confirmation that we were on the D532 expressed concern for our well being and commented on the storm: extraordinaire. 6The roadIt was eleven k.s in driving snow to St B. le F. and a couple more to the Hotel Fort du Pre[6].

During that time it snowed in five or more different ways, some more pleasant than others. It hailed for a while too, viciously, and head on, as we passed through another saddle. We were on our way to a health resort famed for its views, but the views had disintegrated with visibility regularly down to 50 metres or so, just northern hemisphere Christmas card versions of pine trees outlined in white and the occasional stone house. This is not a heavily populated area. Myrna loved it; I was a bit cheesed off. But eleven k.s is not very far really, and we reached St Bonnet about lunch time with about 150 or 200 mm of snow on the ground.

A moment of meditation on the way.8On the way St Bonnet is not a big town. It has perhaps five shops and several big deal eateries, like the Hotel Fort du Pre, just out of town. IMG_1450.JPGBut one of those five shops is the Bar des Quatre Vents, and we brushed the snow off our gear and went inside. It was warm, the telly was on the weather channel, the patron was a 30 year-old spunk with a gracious manner and a will to help, and a kitchen that produced excellent food of exactly the type that one might want in those circumstances.

Restored, we ploughed on through the weather until the Fort du Pre loomed out of the fog. This was supposed to be the four-star treat of the walk’s accommodation where we were to spend our rest day. It had a flash dining room to which people came from all over the country to eat, adorned with chef’s hats awards galore by various luminous organizations. The premises had a pool, a sauna, a gym (all of modest scale), provision for massage and various herbal treatments, a table tennis table, a babyfoot table, a dislike of children and noise, thick carpet and nice rooms. Style? French bourgeois to a T: neat, polite, rule-driven, reticent, censorious.

There was a big thermometer on the wall outside and I kept checking, fruitlessly, to see if it would get above zero. The forecast was for warmer and wetter weather, but in the meantime the snow was increasing in intensity. I spent quite some time reading about French grammar and reflecting on my deficiencies and we went down for tea, dinner that is; and what a carry on it was. There’s a big difference between good food and mucked-around-with food and this was the latter, and we were somewhat peculiar randonneurs (walkers/hikers) from Australia disfiguring the perfection of the environs.

We went back to St Bonnet the next day to do some internet (the only public internet place on the whole route in a bookshop and papeterie run by a young man) and to see what was happening in the Bar des QV.

IMG_0500.JPGThis day the road crews were in having their grands déjeuners: chicken salad, roast pork and mushrooms, tarte tatin and a litre of red wine. 16 euros thanks. Brilliant. Pourquoi pas! Much better than being out in it, and they probably have something like that for lunch every day. It was as good as the previous day and we enjoyed its contrast with the starch of the Fort du Pre. The menu that night: quenelles lyonnaise aux poivrons; cervé d’agneau et pulpe de pomme de terre au fenouil; puding au rhum et raisin, or if you like: stodgy pepper dumplings; slice of lamb, and mashed spud with fennel; plum pudding. IMG_0496

St Bonnet the Cold? I read the explanation quickly but the story goes something like — a traveller found himself caught in the snow, lost and bewildered. Someone, St B., loomed out of the gloom and guided the traveller to comfort tying his donkey up to a suitable post. When the storm had subsided the traveller went to find his donkey and found him dangling in the air tethered to the cross on the top of the local church’s steeple, which can’t have been pleasant for the donkey, and it would seem arguable that these would be sufficient grounds for beatification. I am quite happy to accept that I may have missed some points salient to the story. 10Entry to The track

I was sure we would be on the road again to get to St Agreve, and that was nearer to 20 k.s. 9Fort du PreThe snow had not relented although when we left at eight in the morning it was cold and foggy but still. (Somewhere on the left is the entry to the track.)

We walked down the busier road to Devesset for a couple of hours without pause and had a cup of coffee in a pub which had a number of early patrons, after which we had our first very modest attempt to get off the main road, onto an alternative road really. But just after lunch the fog lifted and we could see a lake in the distance (a feature of the walk apparently), then, lightening my mood considerably, a green paddock, the first touch of colour in three days, just visible in the pic below.IMG_1458

The ice was cracking off the trees and it was noticeably warmer. We’re not talking sunny here, just the odd break in the clouds, excellent walking weather really, and we shifted back onto the track which was not far from and running more or less parallel to the road. It stayed like that till we got to St Agreve where I gave thanks at the Fontaine des Miracules on the outskirts of town, and we found the excellent and cheerful Auberge des Cevennes where one of the staff had lived in WA for a year[7] and was keen to swap stories. Myrna bought some buttons for a jumper she was knitting for Romany. We carry our domesticities with us.11Auberge des Cevennes

The next day was another delight. We had come down three or four hundred metres and the climate had changed markedly. There was an excellent boulangerie over the road from the auberge and we stocked up and skipped out of town which kept not wanting to disappear. It’s built around its own little mountain. IMG_1471

This was the beginning of the second loop of the figure 8 and we were to come back to St Agreve, which was a desirable prospect. IMG_1475.JPG We had morning tea in a cemetery at Beauvert (lots of places to sit) full of Picots and Chabanals. This again was the ‘as advertised’ version of the walk — birds, smells, wild flowers, silage, stone farm buildings converted into weekenders, deep pasture, lovely long views, rolling open hills. Then we were advised by a sign to deviate and we did, around the lip of a high plateau looking at our several destinations 500 metres below. Magnificent. This track then took us directly to the ruins of Roche Bonne. Better again. What a building it must have been. 13A Roche bonneIt’s built around a spire of rock on a very steep face. While ruined now it must have been an astonishing sight in its day. Its day appears to have been around the turn of the 11th century. Un certain Bertrand de Rocha Bonna was granted funds to build it and it changed hands variously for another 300 years ending up with Hugues et Gerenton de La Mastre, a connection. During the religious wars, the castle played a military role, Pons de Rochebonne being one of the principal Catholics of the region. It was taken in 1577 by the Huguenot (protestant) leader, then in 1577 was pillaged and destroyed in 1595. Around 1760, the priest from St Martin de Valamas wrote to his bishop that the castle was entirely destroyed, but the peasants were stealing its stones and something should be done about it. Which is how it remains today, although there are some signs of restoration. It is also close to a waterfall with dramatic character.

It was a long descent to the bottom of the valley, where we found the required abandoned railway line which would take us to St Martin de Valamas. St M. was home to a big retirement village on the flat, but the town itself was a violently steep climb away, 15 minutes of hard exertion, perhaps to keep the oldies fit. It had three cafes all of which were closed because it was the day before yet another French holiday[8], the staff of the Information Touristique were off for a five-day pont[9], and the town’s kids’ playground had one small rocker surrounded by metres of rubber mattingIMG_0540 with one of the sternest signs on the wall one could imagine: ages 2-7 only, adult supervision mandatory, one at a time, all responsibility abjured, well covered in other words.

It mightn’t be a load of laughs as a place to live, but it was very pretty. Mernz thought the cakes we found there were the best we ate while away.

We weren’t at our main destination yet. We had to absorb the fact that the Dogs had just beaten the D.s by four points, information provided by our reliable Hamiltonian football correspondent, and also to find an unsigned, barely described place called Les Chambas (a dialect term, we discovered, for ‘terraced fields’).

We sort of stumbled over it. I thought we’d found it, Myrna wasn’t sure. But I wandered through the garden up to the door and there was a foolscap sheet saying ‘Les Chambas. Bienvenu.’ It was big house, quite stylish in a 1970s sort of way, a B and B we thought. Mine host appeared from somewhere out the back and took us up to our room which appeared to be someone’s bedroom, closets full of clothes, no telly, no bathroom. All a bit spooky.

I’m not that keen on B. and B.s. They seem intimidatingly intimate and after a long walk you just want to fade out at least for a while. But anyway we were there. IMG_0544The dog ran in, pissed on the floor, jumped on the bed and came to visit me in the bath. Dogs, the French: a love affair. We had been advised that aperitifs were at 7.00 and we wandered downstairs, and there were other people there. We had thought we were the only guests, but we weren’t. There were three other couples (who didn’t know each other either) jammed together on two small couches speaking very fast French. The aperitifs were white wine mixed with a local liqueur, chestnut of course, raspberry and something else I missed. I missed a lot. But one of the older ladies took me in hand and we spoke pleasantly slow French and retired for dinner.

The hosts provided dinner for ten, themselves included at the table, most nights of the year. Now that’s not your everyday job. And people came from all over the place to eat with them. Madame la hôtesse spoke French like a machine gun but the others were kind and patient and we found ourselves comfortably included. French manners can also be wonderfully courteous and pleasant. 14Dinner at Les ChambasThe older couple had come from Lyon for a un voyage de dégustation (food trip, you know, like ours). He was retired, she had an interest in writing. The youngest couple were having a weekend away from their kids, grandparents had stepped in, and he was a swimming instructor with classes of forty (!) from a small place north of St Etienne. At the end of the evening we discovered he spoke good English, the rat, having spent a year in Ireland. But it was a night of great good humour and jollity with phenomenal food.

Should I say? People may start to talk. Chacuterie — pâté and sausage; prosciutto and cantaloupe; finely sliced eggplant and tomato concasse (‘smashed up’ I suppose); pork and a ratatouille that had been slowly cooked for some hours, and that’s the way to do it; cheese[10]; gateau aux marrons (a chestnut sauce on a very thin and large creme brulee). All cooked to perfection. One of the very good nights while we were away. IMG_1526

The next day was just a haul up the dismembered railway line and therefore a long steady climb which was never very far from the contour. What struck me was the number of massive bridges we went over, and the effort and cost that would have gone into building them. It would have been a fortune, an investment for the years, and now just a sandy rocky trail to nowhere for randonneurs. Walking without thinking, we passed some brilliant stone houses with fabulous gardens and were back at St Agreve before we knew it, and spent some time watching the world come and go in the bar happily doing nothing. What a life.

Later that night we borrowed the hotel’s computer and discovered that the ash cloud was back. The airports of Portugal, northern Spain and Italy, all of Germany and southern France were closed. That was significant news. We were due to fly from Marseille to Prague and then to Helsinki for home. We had been away long enough and didn’t want a wrestle with airports and schedules in foreign parts.

I went to bed with that largely in mind. We were due to return to La Mastre, the final leg of the figure 8, back to the pintadeau at the Hotel des Negociants. It was another gorgeous day’s walking, a long steady descent back down to the Doux valley, through orchards and vineyards and for some distance along the still cobbled Roman Voie des Marchands (Merchant’s Way/Road, at right). IMG_1541It rained steadily for a few hours but we had our rain gear. We arrived at Désaignes ready for lunch, and I’ve mentioned our offence to the restaurateur. Il y a une formule m’sieur, la formule de Dimanche. Oui oui oui bien sûr. Bien sûr. Mais nous ne le voudrons pas, s’il vous plait. Seulement café et un sandwich, une baguette peut-être …

We got to La Mastre after an excellent day to request use of the Hotel’s ordinateur (computer) which is when we found there wasn’t one. Old France, the ‘50s, perhaps insular, certainly by definition provincial. Dinner lacked the sparkle of the week before. Perhaps it was the repetition or the competition from Les Chambas or the ash cloud and our incapacity to do anything about it. That night Chelsea beat Wigan 8-0, a lot even for a mismatch and I watched a televisual hagiography of the French soccer club Paris St Germaine. I enjoyed it all but was struck by one of the chants adopted by the wild and aggressive PSG supporters. I can’t remember it exactly but it went something like: We wish to suggest to you that taking all things into account we will win the championship this year. French. It is a polite and highly embroidered language and I was becoming increasingly conscious of how brute my version of it was.

I proposed to my wife that perhaps it might be possible that we think of getting to Helsinki as quickly as possible. Then we might be out of the cloud which seemed to be congregating over central Europe, and Finnair would somehow have to look after us. Helsinki seemed like getting home. She concurred. But first I needed a computer.

IMG_1590It is six kilometres from La Mastre to Lecrestet by road but 15 via the track. I thought the road for a minute, but was very glad we didn’t. It might have been the best day. Lecrestet is normally where you begin so we were going back the ‘wrong way’. It began with a long climb out of town, four hundred metres in two kilometres, that’s steep, but we were up to a series of consistently wonderful views. It was a complex track but we didn’t miss a beat. And there was a computer at La Terrasse, our hotel destination.

Several hours were spent fooling around with tickets and bookings, most of which turned out to be redundant, a waste of time and money as Isaac our travel agent lost no time in assuring me when we finally made contact; and I hadn’t even worked out how to get back to the train at Tain l’Hermitage which was going to take us to Marseille. I was counting on the bus. The timetable assured us that it would be right, an early morning but quite doable. But when I asked our host about this he shook his head. Doesn’t happen. Only two buses a day, both too late to get us to the train. Back to the taxi, and the same excellent service prevailed, which just left the fact that I needed an email from Isaac confirming our changed tickets to Helsinki.

But what a walk! What a pleasure it was. So much to enjoy. Myrna had become impressed with this idea of the ecological balance this region represented: lightly populated, extraordinarily fertile, well watered, prolifically productive of the basics of life —and yet at the same time it had been left behind, abandoned. IMG_0517.JPGYou could almost forget global warming in the Ardèche in a way that has been impossible in Australia for years. The storm and the snow we experienced had been extraodinaire, unseasonal, unexpected, rare. But the product of the storm was more water on this fertile deep black soil, not a disaster.

I’m sitting in Broome (north-western Australia) in pindan savannah country writing this. It could hardly be more different. The road to Hall’s Creek, all 800 k.s of it, has three or four major rocky outcrops. Apart from that this is dead flat bright red soil country with nothing much growing above a couple of metres.DSC_0127 (these are baobabs.) We cross the mighty Fitzroy on the way which at present is only a series of pools. But in the dry, apart from the spring at Hall’s which creates the creek, there is no other non-artesian water in all that distance. ‘Ski Creek’, a water playground just after the wet, is sand. We pass the truck stop at Willare and go through Fitzroy Crossing but there are no other towns and, apart from a few signs leading off to station tracks there are no other signs of human habitation. There’s nothing much to eat for the cattle that wander through the spinifex and amble across the road in the late evening. They need fattening on grain before they can be sold.

The biggest issue here at present is the ruinous impact the 300 billion dollar gas project will have on the physical ecology of James Price Point (and the social ecology of the whole area). It’s another world just so far away. Some questions to which I have no answer. Is it some atavistic memory that makes countryside like the Ardèche so attractive to people like us? Why are its occupants fleeing it in droves for cities and for such a different life style? (Perhaps that answers itself.) The Kimberley could be described as an inhospitable environment, and this is the nicest time of the year and I’ve just been for a swim at Cable Beach, but should anyone besides its traditional owners live here? Tomorrow I will be with whitefellas who would live nowhere else.  

Marseille: worth more time 16 J-P.s terrace, the view

A cup of coffee (une grande crème): I’ve forgotten

We’re on the run home. If you’re still reading, you’ve been generous and need never have to think about any of this again.

It was pouring rain as the taxi took us to the train for Marseille which came but was 40 minutes late. It nonetheless seemed like progress. Jean-Paul Sartre had been a guest in our hotel in Marseille during the summer of 1978, and I say almost certainly in our room which was on the top floor with a terrace looking out over the Old Port. Marseille looked like a lot of fun, so interesting, almost not a French city with an amazing mix of people, but I was too tired to exploit it, too sick of trying to speak French and organise unorganisable things. We pottered around a bit, found the food bar in a Galleries Lafayette and prayed that the Marseille airport would be open and that Isaac’s email would arrive.

That email kept not coming, despite phone calls, despite prayers. We found groovy-ville which had a market and a very definite bohemian atmosphere; the streets generally were humming with all sorts of life; the weather was fine and we were settled in J-P.s magnificent pad; but I would say I missed Marseille, just passed it by.

Finally, Isaac’s email arrived, and as it turned out we probably didn’t need it. We got up at 5am — something I have to do again tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll go; it’s not my favourite — but this morning was lovely. The sun rose during the 30 minute drive to the airport and everything glowed pink. The airport was open, the planes were flying, we spent a minute in Prague and then arrived in Helsinki and the Hotel Glo. By that time I’d read ‘The Guardian’. It was that easy.  


It was a tonic, like a smiling welcoming face. Everything was closed because it was Ascension Day but who cared? We slept the sleep of the just in an upgraded room, got up slowly and did a bit of shopping.

Helsinki had changed totally in seven weeks. These pictures are of the same place at the same time of day.IMG_1649 IMG_0817.JPG The snow banks had disappeared, the flowers were out, not a hint of ice in the bays and the populace had their party face on. The bloke in the Nike shop told us that it was their hottest day (250C) for three years, and whether or not it was true it was obvious that the weather had caused a total rush of blood in the locals. They were out in force stripped to the underwear, drinking beer and lying blissed out in the sun. The Esplanaadi which had been denuded of people when we were there last was packed with thousands of Helsinkians and the mood communicated itself. Finland had also just won the annual world ice hockey championship.

We thought we might go for a swim. After a hot walk we found the pool, and we also found the 100 metre queue which was stationary to get into the pool. I have never seen a queue outside a swimming pool before. Go the Finns.IMG_1646I had another pool marked on the map so we set off to find it. Unlike the other one, it was indoor and while not empty was not crowded and high high quality. We got back to the hotel in time to dress up for the opera — Myrna’s new Save the Queen (Rome) giraffe dress got its first outing — but we were not in time to eat. The opera was Verdi’s ‘Masked Ball’ really well done in a modern hall which was grand but intimate. No Finns in the lead roles, a Russian, a Spaniard, an Italian and a Pole, but it was all good. What we didn’t know was that the smart money had ordered food and drink for the several and long intervals. Still it gave us a chance to look around at what Helsinki offers in terms of class. We checked, and no one else had a Save the Queen dress on. We did lots of enjoyable things next day with a very special mention to the National Art Gallery but the tension was mounting and our final meal at Karl Johan was not a success.

Got on the plane. Came home.


  • [1] We booked it through a British company called Sherpa who for a perfectly reasonable fee, book accommodation for each night and undertake to move luggage from one spot to the next. Dinner and breakfast is included in the cost and you sort out your own lunch, a picnic (usually) or you might be at one of the towns on the way at lunchtime. They also provide maps and track notes.
  • [2] The Huguenots still have a church in La Mastre as elsewhere in the Ardèche. Free Protestants they’re called.
  • [3] A vegetable salad; guinea fowl roasted with chestnuts, spinach tart and green beans; cheese; butterscotch and chestnut ice cream
  • [4] From the lowest point to the highest, in this case La Mastre to peaks on the ridge, 320m above sea level to 1280.
  • [5] Madam, the track has completely disappeared. We’d like to go to St Bonnet with the luggage please.
  • [6] Renowned for its way with produits de terroir (the region, this local area), en particulier les viandes (meats), les poissons (fish) et les champignons (mushies).
  • [7] Without going further east. It’s a big country.
  • [8] They have a couple most weeks. It’s a reason for Andre’s longevity and good health.
  • [9] A way of establishing a long weekend. Holiday on Wednesday? Take Monday and Tuesday off, hence ‘bridge’.
  • [10] Roquefort, St Agur and something local. During the conversation we decided, complicit, that Australia didn’t have any cheese — what can you say? It had already been conceded, not by me, that Australia was the greatest sporting nation in the world. On return, what we were the first two cheeses I saw at our deli in the market? Rochefort and St Agur.

2 thoughts on “ELSEWHERE 2010: The Ardèche. Balanced world

  1. Pingback: ELSEWHERE 2012: Rome. Dolce e ruvido | mcraeblog

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