We stayed at the Château de la Ferté Beauharnais, in the Blue Tower Room. Apart from the novelty of being round, it boasted a four-poster bed with beautiful linen and a mohair blanket. Elsewhere were pieces of period furniture, riding boots and some elegant hats. I wondered whose feet had trodden the oak boards and who had gazed out of the shuttered windows.
While our host, Daniel, was phoning a restaurant for us, my husband, Tony, discovered there were no bath towels (they arrived later). We then learned the restaurant was closed (vacation) and there was no key to the room (not even a key-hole).
We went in search of food. The nearest town claimed it was the home of the ‘véritable tarte tatin’, my husband’s favourite dessert. We found a lively restaurant and at dessert time, the waitress rattled off a list.
‘Is there no tarte tatin?’
Maybe Josephine suffered the same dismay at her wishes being frustrated.
The next morning, the breakfast table was laid with fine china and elegant cutlery. We avoided toast as the smell of burning was strong. I asked about the house and Daniel settled himself down beside us.
It had indeed belonged to the Beauharnais family, Josephine living there in her pre-Napoleonic days with her husband, Alexandre, before he lost his head in the French Revolution.
‘Do you have time to see the original kitchen in the cellar?’
Of course we had. In the centre was a wooden table, polished by many hands. It was where Josephine signed over the house to her son, Eugène de Beauharnais. I stroked the table and felt her fingertips.
What’s a bit of disorganisation when you get a treat like that?
‘Un enfant est fragile. Mettez-lui un casque.’ ‘A child is precious. Use a safety helmet.’ Illuminated signs in the Trois Vallées ski area in the French Alps exhort parents to take care of their skiing children. And I’ve yet to see a small child without one.
But what about adults? Aren’t they breakable too? There was a time only children or racers used such protection, it being considered either unnecessary or pretentious for ‘ordinary’ skiers. I thought that when I learned to ski in the ’80s in Norway, so shunned a helmet. It was unfashionable. But those were different times.
This week the slopes were busy, it still being half-term in parts of France. There were many ski lessons and the red-clad ESF (Ecole de Ski Français) instructors were everywhere. I heard on the local radio that it takes five years to train an ESF instructor. You’d think there would be time in the five years to mention safety helmets. None of the instructors wears one. No exaggeration. None. These people are role models. Children look up to them. Adult skiers follow them off piste and down black slopes.
A few evenings ago, a group of ESF instructors put on a demonstration of their skills – synchronised skiing, jumps and acrobatics – for our entertainment. It was impressive and great fun. I spotted just three or four instructors wearing helmets. They cared about their skulls when doing back-flips. Presumably the others were already cracked in the head. Fortunately none of the falls was serious.
What is it with skiers in France? Probably around half of the adult skiers I saw this week wore helmets – better than it was, but still poor. In Austria and Switzerland, the percentage is nearer 90%. In Norway, it’s almost unknown to see anyone on the slopes without a helmet. A helmet won’t protect you from all injuries – Michael Schumacher was wearing one when he had his accident – but anyone with any sense tries to minimise danger.
Helmets cost around 100 euros, less in the end-of-season sales. It’s paltry compared with the cost of a ski holiday, insignificant if skiing is your livelihood. And what price a head? An expert skier friend was hit by a snowboarder and knocked out for a few minutes in spite of his helmet. He’s sure he’d have lost more than consciousness without it.
There are now multiple opportunities to do a head-plant, with snow parks proliferating everywhere. You can take off over huge jumps and reach high speeds going down skier-cross courses. Great fun but risky. And even if you avoid such risks, busy slopes bring collision dangers.
What hoops applicants have to jump through to get a job! Online tests, presentations, in depth interviews by a daunting panel – and that’s just to get on to the short list. Terrifying stuff.
I didn’t so much jump as wriggle on my stomach past the observers.
In the 80’s, my husband’s job took him to Norway so, being a pharmacist, I applied to a score of pharmaceutical companies in Oslo for an opening – just speculative, no advertised vacancies. It was a gamble – I’d never worked in the industry. Half ignored me; many rejected me. A handful made positive noises. One company called me in to talk to them at their UK branch.
We had a pleasant chat. They told me what they did – I wasn’t well prepared but fortunately they didn’t ask much. They said they couldn’t offer me a job at an affiliate office in another country but they told me who to contact when I arrived.
It worked. I met a charming office manager in Oslo. He introduced me to the staff, a small group who preferred to speak Norwegian rather than English. I contributed haltingly having learned a little of the language. They made jokes about English pots of tea – theirs was made in a coffee machine. It was laid back and casual. Nobody wore a suit.
I wondered what the next step would be. Another, more formal, visit? An interview with a senior member of the company? No.
They simply asked me if I could start the following Monday.
Did everyone think someone else had done the interview? Who knows? If I didn’t wriggle past them, then I slipped through the net.
I worked successfully for the company for the next twenty years.
I am a serial loser of handbags. I’ve left one in Italy (on a train), Norway (in a mountain cabin), Scotland (in a distillery). Then there was Canada.
We headed along Highway One, the Trans-Canada Highway, a straight line into the distance.
‘You’d think the Romans had been here,’ my husband said.
Not the Romans but the early pioneers, going west, not knowing what lay head. We knew. We were going to the Rocky Mountains. The land was flat as we left Calgary. Then we saw the ski jumps, challenging monsters for other brave men, a legacy from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. We stopped to take photographs and have lunch in a café.
Then on again. We drove slowly, taking in the ever more spectacular view. At Canmore, a ski resort near Banff, we stopped to look around.
I reached for my handbag by my feet. Not there. Nor on the back seat. I froze as I re-lived the last hour of my life.
‘I left my handbag behind at lunchtime.’
My husband’s face was eloquent. There was much he could have said, but didn’t. Instead we simply headed back east.
He didn’t need to berate me; I was giving myself a bad enough time. We listed the bag’s contents: passports, credit cards, $500, glasses, mobile phone.
The return journey was unpleasant. The scenery irritated us with its slow passage. The 90 kph speed limit mocked us.
I ran into the café, to the table we’d used. No handbag. Jumping the queue, I told my story.
And there was my bag, handed in by a customer. Thank you, honest Canadians!
Patagonia! A magical name and the trip didn’t disappoint.
We started in vibrant Buenos Aires with a tango show. My fears that it would be tourist rubbish were unfounded. The standard was professional, the venue old-style glamorous and the food and drink high quality and generous. Anyone who has watched ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ knows all about the Argentine tango. In Argentina it’s even more athletic and dramatic. What I didn’t know was that it was originally danced by men, the gauchos coming into the city. While awaiting their turn with their chosen ladies, they would tango. You never know where a tango will lead you!
We wondered how welcome we would be in Argentina. However, it seems the Falklands war is a dim memory and people are more focussed on improving conditions nearer home. The mausoleum of Luis Vernet, last governor of the Falklands, is in a neglected state in the Recoleta Cemetery, not far away from that of the much more revered Eva Peron.
We liked Buenos Aires, from the eclectic mix of styles in the centre to the colourful streets of La Boca (where we saw more tango, danced on café steps).
On the ‘wrong’ side of the railway line, visible from the motorway, are the slums, a strange assortment of cubes built on top of each other, separated by narrow alleyways, where the poorest live.
In contrast, Porto Moderno is super-rich. Our guide called it ‘Money-Laundering Land’. Politicians live here in huge apartments. There is much corruption.
We flew from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego. It was called the Land of Fire by the early explorers who saw fires burning on the shores. The early natives lived naked so needed fire to keep warm. An amazing visit to the prison in Ushuaia, now a museum, told us of British influence – the Argentinians sent their convicts here just as we sent ours to Tasmania for punishment.
We took a trip on the Beagle Channel, saw sea lions and cormorants, and were amazed that early sailors ever found their way among all the islands. The weather is unreliable here – usually only around six days a year with cloudless, blue skies. We had two of them! Boats leave from here for Antarctica. We really were at the end of the earth.
Patagonia stretches across both Argentina and Chile and so we set off on a 12 hour bus journey to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. For much of the time, the scenery was flat and uninteresting – the Argentinian Steppe – but the Park is worth the journey. Our guide told us about mate tea which the locals drink. It’s a caffeine-rich infusion, traditionally made in a calabash gourd and drunk via a silver straw. It’s passed from person to person, a social ritual they all seem to enjoy. Our guide handed his mate round for us to try. Far too bitter for me.
We stayed in cabins with snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes around us just outside the National Park, a lovely position.
There was the option of a 23km trek the following day. We decided to go for it although our local guide nearly put me off with her severe warnings (Health & Safety prevails!) It was difficult at the top, steep and rocky, but a real achievement to get there.
Another long drive back to Argentina – you can fall asleep and when you wake, the scenery hasn’t changed! Lots of guanacos scattered about – they look like llamas. We headed for El Calafate, a pleasant if touristy town. This was our base for the Perito Moreno glacier. A spectacular 70 metre wall of ice, calving from time to time into Lake Argentino, shone bluish white in the sunshine. The system of walkways and viewpoints is excellent and we took a boat trip to get an even closer look.
Off to El Chalten the next day, stopping en route at an old ranch, La Leona, now a café. There were pictures of Butch Cassidy on the wall – apparently he stopped here for a month when on the run to Bolivia. Who knows if it’s true!
Another long walk to a view point in the Fitzroy Massif the following day. Our luck broke and the wind and cloud made the final part of the walk impossible. But we’d seen the Fitzroy mountain the previous day, so shouldn’t complain.
We now had the final stage of our visit – the Iguazu Falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Someone said the temperature there was 37˚C (actually, it wasn’t). I had no shorts with me so chopped the legs off a pair of jeans. No time to shop! Yet more travelling including the chaos of Iguazu airport with an IT failure and no systems operational!
The Falls are wonderful, probably best from the Argentinian side. There is a compulsion to take photos constantly – I have more than I know what to do with! (Some people still seem to find selfies more important than the spectacular scenery…) The highlight was a boat trip to the foot of one of the cascades. They said we’d get wet – they weren’t lying. It wasn’t just the spray – a wave landed in my lap. I was in my denim shorts. Not often do I need to wring out my underwear!
We were well-sustained by the amazing Argentinian beef and Patagonian lamb throughout the trip. We’ve never eaten so much meat but it was good. Then there was King Crab and spicy prawns when we were near the sea. Empanadas for lunch. Add to that, the Argentinian Malbec and a Pisco Sour or two…
Four days walking in Wiltshire, three different B & B’s, six of us who frequently walk together, coordinated and organised by Carol, our ‘Leader’.
It rained on the first day, exactly as forecast. I had my waterproof over-trousers with me (they are the most hated item of clothing I possess) but I couldn’t be bothered to put them on. So my legs were soaked. As was my rucksack. My feet were dry (new boots) but Barbara and Dave had leakages. We were a pretty sodden sight. Still, it was only eight miles and the rain eventually stopped. We went to Barbury castle, an iron-age hill fort, and ate our homemade cake.
There were a few navigational issues and when we realised we had gone round in a complete circle, revisiting the sights we’d seen a few hours earlier, eight miles turned into twelve. Neville blamed himself and insisted on buying the wine at dinner. We were well lubricated by bed-time.
The following day, it was Avebury and Silbury Hill. We walked to the Long Barrow and went inside.
The sun shone for the Autumn Equinox. This attracts interesting people. One girl played her guitar and sang beautifully. As we left, she blew us kisses and said we were angels. She wished us a good trip. I think she and her friends were already on theirs.
We passed a couple lying close and immobile on the grass and another girl cutting herbs outside her decrepit caravan. There was the sound of haunting music around the Avebury stones and peaceful people soaking up the energy. It was a good day.
Unfortunately, the landlord of our B & B for that night kept us waiting around an hour on his doorstep as he’d needed to shop for our dinner. This was worrying but the food was good even if the service was slow. Minor problem when Tony failed to notice the shower head in the bathroom filling his wash bag with water. Oh, well.
The following day was lovely. Good weather again, we walked to the white horse at Alton Barnes.
The dyke that separated the old counties of Mercia and Wessex centuries ago was still clearly visible. Rolling hills, easy going.
‘I wonder if we can see Stonehenge from here,’ Carol said, as we gazed at the view.
‘Not if you look in that direction,’ said Tony. ‘It’s north from here.’
‘No it isn’t, it’s south.’
‘Bottle of champagne on that.’
I asked Tony if he was sure. ‘Would I bet a bottle of champagne if I wasn’t?’
It’s comforting to know my husband’s super sense of direction occasionally lets him down. I don’t feel so bad about mine. He’s off to buy the bubbles.
Final day, and a walk around the Chutes. It was the sloe walk. That isn’t a spelling mistake. There were loads, an additional weight in the rucksacks but we look forward to tasting Barbara’s sloe gin at Christmas. It was meant to be a short, easy walk. Something went wrong again, we missed the path and ended up plodding uphill through a rough field with holes to grab the unwary foot. This brought us to a road but no gate or stile. Fortunately the wire fence was neither electric nor barbed. We clambered over it inelegantly, only one of us falling. No damage apart from wounded pride.
We’re looking forward to our next walk. Carol insists we’ll take the champagne with us. That’s bound to help the navigation.
Two years ago, some kind friends invited us to join them sailing in the Caribbean. I was expecting smart boats and cruise liners, friendly people, good seafood, clear turquoise sea and sunshine. I got all this but what I wasn’t expecting to find was a throw-back to the late fifties/early sixties. Sydney’s Peace & Love Beach Bar and Restaurant was just that.
We moored our boat on a buoy in Little Harbour, Jost van Dyke, in the British Virgin Islands. Looking for somewhere interesting to have an evening drink, we took the dinghy to the nearby beach. Sydney’s was there – but, alas, not Sydney who died in 2010.
His daughter, Strawberry, ran the place exactly as he did. When we asked for rum punches, she showed us the rum, the punch mixer, the ice and the plastic beakers. We served ourselves and simply told her how many we’d had before we left. Trust worked. The price was good – there were no bar staff to pay.
The pillars and rafters were painted white and covered with names, dates and messages from the hundreds of visitors over the years. Having no indelible pen, we had come unprepared to add ours, although finding space would have been a problem. The other decoration was T-shirts – all types and sizes, hanging everywhere.
There was liberal use of the ‘Ban the Bomb’ symbol and hearts – Peace and Love. I was back in my youth. We sat at plastic tables on plastic chairs which were anything but luxurious. But we got the atmosphere we wanted as the sun went down.
I wonder if it survived Irma? It was a shack on the beach. Somehow I doubt it.