The A6 motorway leads south from Paris, past Auxerre and Beaune, where I used to turn east to take lesser roads to Pontarlier and the Swiss border. For ten years around the millennium, I was based for two years in Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and subsequently in Paris.
I often drove that route between Paris and Switzerland, and between Auxerre and Beaune, there was a sign pointing to Alesia. I never understood the significance of Alesia, until a French friend explained to me that Europe, as we know it today, resulted from a battle between the Gauls and the Romans, that had taken place there.
In that era BC, Gaul consisted of most of modern-day France, parts of Belgium, Western Germany and Northern Italy. But there were very many tribes and Vercingetorix, a young chieftain from Gergovia (present-day Gergovie) managed to unite many of them in resistance to the Romans.
In 52 BC, under the leadership of Vercingetorix, the Gauls had defeated the Romans, under Julius Caesar, at the battle of Gergovia, near Clermont-Ferrand. After indecisive skirmishes, Vercingetorix had moved his forces to Alesia.
Alesia is just outside the present-day town of Alice-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy. It is equidistant between Beaune and Chablis, a short distance from the A6. The site of Alesia was on a plateau about 200 m above the valley floor. It was protected by cliffs and a wooden wall. It is thought that there were 80,000 Gauls there at that time.
When the Romans arrived and laid siege to the city, in only a few weeks they build a 15 km ring of fortifications around the city, and outside it, an additional ring of 21 km, to defend from attempts to relieve the siege by reinforcements. The fortifications must have looked like a huge doughnut. It worked. The relief forces were unable to breach the outer defenses and the city forces were unable to break out.
To spare his men their inevitable defeat, Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar, and he was eventually imprisoned in Rome. After one of Caesar’s ‘triumphs’, five years later Vercingetorix was paraded around Rome and then strangled in his prison cell.
In his Commentarii de Bello Galico, Caesar described the battle and the events leading up to it. It is the only account of the battle that exists, for there has never been one written from the Gallic point of view.
Three years later, in 49 BC, having conquered Gaul, Caesar arrived at the Rubicon, a small river south of present-day Ravenna. It was the former border between Gaul and Italy. He had been explicitly ordered not to lead his army across the river, but he ignored that. His action precipitated the Roman Civil War and he went on to defeat Pompey and become dictator of Rome. He was assassinated in 44 BC.
How would Europe have looked today if Caesar had lost at Alesia and not eventually crossed the Rubicon?
If you have ever been to Paris and passed by Notre Dame or the Louvre, you may have seen the Tour Saint Jacques. It stands alone in a small park, near the right bank, a block from the river.
The first time that I saw the Tour Saint Jacques was in 1978, when I was looking after the apartment of friends on rue Tiquetonne. On my daily training run to and along the river, I used to pass the Tour. At that time I was not aware of its history.
Many years later, I was based in Paris, with a small apartment on rue de Lille, one short block from the river on the left bank and opposite the Louvre. It was during that era that I read many of the books of Alexander Dumas, several of which were based in the area in which I was living. Many nights I wandered the streets of the old city, imagining what it may have been like in the era of Dumas’s novels and searching for landmarks that may have still existed.
The Tower of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was built in 1509-1523 on an existing church, during the reign of Francois I, and funded by rich butchers of the nearby market of Les Halles. It became the departure point for pilgrims setting off on their potentially difficult journey to Santiago de Compostela, some 1,500 km away in Galicia, in north western Spain. According to legend, Charmagne founded the original church to shelter a relic of James the Great.
During the French Revolution, the church was destroyed. Eventually the remains were sold as building materials, on the condition that the 54m high tower was preserved.
In 2003, restoration of the Tour was started and finally completed in 2013. I have never seen the completed work, as I left Paris in 2007 and have not since been back.
This morning, locked down for the 63rd day of the Covid-19 virus in Cape Town, walking my umpteen lap of our basement garage, longing to be on another Camino to Santiago de Compostela, I suddenly remembered Paris and the Tour Saint Jacques.
Despite having served for more than six years during WW2, my father almost never spoke of his war experiences, at least not in my presence. He never seemed to look back, nor did he ever seem to worry about what the future might hold. He took each day as it came, did his very best, and at the end of the day he turned the page. I remember him as being a very contented man. His has been a hard act to follow.
It was not until my early attempts to write my family history that I realised how little I knew of my father’s wartime experiences. He had long passed on and it was through his best friend, Roy Bishop, that some of the blank pages were partially filled. It was in 20o7, in response to my many questions, that Roy, through emails, documented his memories. Where appropriate, I will quote Roy’s exact words.
Royston Bishop was born in Barnet, North London, on 29 November 1918. He had an older brother, Thomas and two younger sisters, Gladys and Gwendoline. His parents, Thomas Bishop and Lilian Lawson, were both from large families; his father was one of eight siblings and his mother one of sixteen.
In late 1939, after the breakout of WW2, Roy was called up for military service. At that time, he was a trainee manager with Hector Powe, the chain of luxury menswear shops, with headquarters in Regent Street, London. At the same time, at Potter’s Bar in North London, my father had a trainee manager position with Sainsburys, which was a rather up-market family grocer in that era. Their paths were destined to cross. They were not yet turned twenty-one, with my father’s birthday on November 11 and Roy’s on November 29.
We met on the first day of being called up in September 1939 at Chelmsford, Essex and we were transported together to the Recruit Training Centre at Northolt and we shared the same hut and even had beds (on the floor) next to each other. After the 4 weeks training we were posted to the same Company, HQ;2nd/8th. battalion The Middlesex Regiment, Harry to the Band and I was posted to the Regimental Police. We remained friends througout our 6 plus years together and even finished up in the same platon in D Company Heavy Mortars; Harry as MPOack and I was the Platoon Sergeant.
In the early days of the war, they were assigned to guard duty at various installations in and around London, eventually being transferred to Portrush, in Northern Ireland, where they spend much of the next three years in training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe..
My father always described Roy as ‘a bit of a character’ and more that once described how Roy had decided to ignore military rules and swam outside the harbour, not realizing how strong were the prevailing North Sea currents. Despite being a strong swimmer, Roy was not able to swim back to the harbour and had to be rescued.
When I was researching for my family history, I came across an account of the Middlesex regiment by a Leslie Dyer and I asked Roy if he ever had come across him:
Les Dyer, known as "Deadly" was in the transport section as a driver and was quite a wild character. I remember escorting him to Carrickfergus Detention barracks as he had overstayed his leave. We had a laugh over this episode recently and he told me that his wife told him to get an education and having no family he took an education course and finished up overseas teaching.
And who was Harry Ellison, for I recalled him being mentioned more than once by my parents?
Harry Ellison I knew very well as he was in the same (HQ) Company as Harry and myself. He was a magnificent drummer; professional standard. He was engaged to a Portrush girl but sadly he was killed in action in Normandy, having been posted to a machine gun company.
It was in Portrush that my father met Ernie Mann, who was then the leader of the dance band that played in Barry’s Ballroom. My father often used to play piano with the band and it was a relationship from which he was able to profit, when he eventually returned from the war in 1946.
It was also in Portrush where my father met my mother. They were married in October 1942.
In response to my question, Roy explained how my parents, once married, could have been able to be together, given wartime restrictions.
In Portrush, sleeping out passes were required but in those days it was an easy going attitude as long as one was on parade in time in the morning.
But shortly after my parents were married, the Middlesex regiment was moved to England.
Harry and I were in Northern Ireland together for about 2.5 years and then went to Yorkshire, Southend and then Amersham. I was away on a number of Army Courses; Gas Warfare Recognition at Winterbourne Gunner, Dorset, Small Arms Cadre at Dorking, Surrey, Regimental Provost Duties at Carrickfergus,Co.Antrim, Light A/Ack at Clacton on Sea, Essex and Heavy Mortor Instructor's Course at Netheravon with Bob Richardson and Frank Godfrey. It was on this course that I met my future wife as Gwyn was in the WAAF stationed nearby at Amesbury, Wiltshire and we were married the following May on a short leave from Germany.
My mother gave birth to a little girl, June Mary, in May 1943, but sadly she died a few months later, in January 1944. I don’t know if my father ever saw his daughter.
It was tragic for Harry at the time to lose a daughter of 8 months.The battalion were in transit at that period from Amersham to East Sussex and I was on a Small Arms course at Dorking and I think Harry had compassionate leave and we met up again at Kemp Town, Brighton on his return.
We then moved to Worthing and we were billeted in the Clear View Hotel, opposite the pier, with all equipment and weapons at hand. We slept on the bare floor boards and awaited orders to proceed into action and were awaiting suitable transit for our Universal Carriers and heavy mortars. All the hotels on the Worthing front were empty and taken over by most of the battalion.
The Middlesex regiment were attached to the 15th Scottish Division for the duration of the war, and the following map, with dates, documents their path through France, Belgium, Netherlands and finally Germany.
For Roy, the earlier days after the invasion were particularly poignant:
Tormaville was without question a terrible battle area, firing most of the night. I buried Corp. Symonds in the early hours and whilst I was digging, a Pte. Peter Benson-Cooper came over from the next field where 15 Platoon were firing. He helped me dig the trench but we dug it too deeply, and the body was never recovered. However, Corp. Symonds is mentioned on the memorial stele in Normandy.
Many times, Roy has spoken to me of passing through battlefields in Northern France in the early days after the invasion. He said that he could never forget the stench of rotting animals and the remains of German soldiers and the mass destruction of the villages and countryside.
Roy and my father were not to be without mishap:
In France we had many shared experiences and we shared a German Personnel Mine when Harry's Universal Carrier with Lt.Bob.Richardson and Private Amelan and Harry on board and with me driving my motor bike alongside were blown up by the mine. I flew up in the air and come down in black smoke, with the engine still running, thinking that was the end! Private Amelan had perforated ear drums and was evacuated along with Bob Richardson who had shock and minute metal pieces in his chest. Harry and I both suffered hearing loss and we were deaf for three days but fortunately we recovered but not back to our normal hearing.
I can vouch for my father’s loss of hearing. It was impossible to have a conversation with him without repeating everything at least twice. In his twilight years, Roy purchased a hearing aid, but I recall that his experience with it was less than satisfactory.
Old soldiers have a language of their own and I once asked Roy to write about his role and my father’s wartime role as an MPOack:
The MPOack was an assistant to the platoon 2i/c and sat next to him in a lloyd tracked infantry carrier. Driving the carrier was Amelan and they operated a No18 radio set and messages vis the OP (observation post) were relayed to the mortar line giving bearing and bombs to be fired. I was on the mortar line and it was my job to liaise with the information of number of bombs fired daily and this information was sent to Coy. HQ, so that replacement bombs were supplied. I usually went to a rendezvous on a cross roads map reference on my motor bike with a Universal carrier to bring back the replacement bombs to the platoon position.
Many years after a battle in Belgium, Roy had a remarkable experience:
Mol in Belgium was the area where we were heavily shelled and Corp. Crowhurst DCM was killed and Pte. Baker was also killed. Pte. Owen Collins was seriously injured and I managed to get him onto a medical truck and he was evacuated to England. Very many years later by a terrific coincidence I was visiting the war graves of these soldiers when a lady and gentleman approached at the sametime. It turned out to be Pte. Owen Collins and his wife, who had travelled from Bovey Tracey in Devon. In fact I paid a visit to them the following year. He told me that he had never fully recovered from nerves and had to leave the police force after a year. He settled for an agricultural job without tension.
He told his wife that I was the man who saved his life because of the quick action of getting him evacuated medically.
One of the few memories of my father speaking of the war was his description of driving for hours through the night from Tilburg to the Ardennes in Belgium. They had no lights and had to follow at tiny light under the vehicle ahead.
Yes, Harry remembered the incident well as it was a horrible all-night drive to support the Americans due to a breakthrough in the Ardennes, due to the German breakthrough in the American sector.The 15th.Scottish Infantry Division had only just liberated TILBURG, North Brabant and Harry and some of the platoon were having a celebrating drink in the Burgomaster's house when an immediate recall came through to the Platoon to start-up, for an all night drive in readiness for a crash-action. You could imagine our tiredness having just entered Tilburg as the liberators. I was riding my motorbike half asleep, every now and again being bought back to alertness by my front wheel hitting the Lloyd Carrier in front and after hours of driving in poor weather we eventually went in to a crash action in support. It was a period of battle that always stays in the mind as it was a test of endurance. I will always remember the large number of young American soldiers who were killed in action lying dead on the road on our route.
What happened after Tilburg?
In answer to your query re the target after Tilburg was to MEIJEL when we supported 44 Brigade and which all platoons took part. Bad weather, boggy ground and a very strong resistance ensured heavy fighting for 4 to 5 days until the 6th November when a lull ensued. All were engaged by the 15th Nov when casualities increased. I lost a friend from Finchley, Lt.Cross, who was killed in 12 platoon and also Sgt Wood from the same platoon.
After the end of the fighting, when we had arrived in Lubeck, our platoon were employed in looking after German prisoners of war in the Hamburg area. They were housed in "Nissan type huts", around a dozen to each building. The looking after the Belsen prisoners was dealt mainly by the Royal Army Medical Corps with assistance in transport by the Royal Army Service Corps. We soon reverted to Regimental duties at the end of 1945 with guard duties as we were very close to the Russian Infantry who had their guard room a few hundred yards to the east of Lubeck.
Rensburg was the next town where the Battalion was stationed in 1946, after Lubeck, so it was peace time soldiering. Harry and I were on demobilisation number 26 and left at Lubeck as our age was then 27 years and two months and had served throughout the war years and nearly 6.5 years war service.
You enquired re Normandy landing date and route and amongst my memorablia I found a note of the platoon travels. It is in pencil and written on my motor bike travels, so it is not in my usual script, so some villages and towns may be misspelt. Gosport 7.7.44. St Crois sur mer, Tourville, Evrecy, Caumont, Sutain, ESTRY, Bernay, Theelt, Londerzeel, Gheel, Eindhoven, BEST, Helmond, Venlo, Mol, TILBURG, Bletrick, Neer, Sevenum, Helden, Riel, Nijemen, CLEVE, Goch, Moglands (Schloss), Boxtel, BourgLeopold, Zanten, RIVER RHINE CROSSING, Mehrbou, Leven, Brennhorst, Hazenburg, CELLE, Uelzen, Neetze, Bleclede, RIVER VELBE CROSSING, Hammour, Bolhsdorf,Trenemunde, Wilsted, Carlow, LUBECK, (Late 45,early 46).
Harry and I were then demobbed. Both rather tired after that lot!.
Roy often spoke to me of a young German boy, who was ‘adopted’ by the Middlesex regiment. His name was Heinz Johannsen, but the soldiers called him Jimmy. In later life, Heinz collected Middlesex memorabilia. Heinz maintained contact with many of the Middlesex soldiers, including Roy. A few years ago I was also in contact with him.
With the war over, Roy and my father were released from military service, Roy to restart to his managerial career with Hector Powe, and my father to start a poultry farm in Portrush, subsidized by his musical talent. They remained firm friends ever after.
And nine months after my father returned to Portrush, I came on the scene.
Roy, my father and most, if not all, of their friends have passed on, but we must never ever forget their sacrifice of their time, and in many cases their lives, to keep Europe free and at peace.
I grew up on a poultry farm. My father was a specialist breeder of Light Sussex and Brown Leghorn stock. I was raised on eggs, but I never ate chicken, at least not if I could avoid it. I clearly remember when I was small and poked my head around my mother at the kitchen sink, just as she was up to her elbow in a chicken, removing its entrails, before she burned them on the kitchen fire, always causing quite a stink; that was the first of my many vegetarian moments on the farm.
I never had an omelette when I lived at home. They were not a part of my mother´s standard cuisine; she was a traditional Irish woman who deferred to the narrow culinary demands of my very traditional English father. Omelette would have been a bit too French for my father. Six years of WW2 left him with some indelible prejudices.
I had my first omelette in Paris in 1969. I was working with Singer Sewing Machines, installing a new computer system in their French head office. My good friend and Australian colleague, Geoff Rich met me for breakfast. He ordered an omelette with bread and coffee and so did I, not knowing what it was. Delicious it turned out to be. And he played ‘Lay, lady lay’ by Bob Dylan on the jukebox. The haunting lyrics and melody still recall Paris to me. To others, it may seem rather corny today, but those were magic moments for me.
Some years later, in 1978, omelettes came back into my life in Nigeria. It was on my first day of a short-term contract in Lagos. I went to the canteen, presented my plate and received what appeared to be the greater part of a goat, with a few steamed vegetables on the side. The meat was not for me and for the rest of my stay in Nigeria, I lived on beer, cashew nuts, bought by the bottle from street vendors, and omelettes in a French restaurant near to the office, or in the Ikoyi club.
When I was later based in Paris in 1998-2007, I frequented a nearby bistro, La Frégate. The Maitre d´, Patrick, would always read out the short list of specials, ending with resignation, ‘omelette au fromage o salade mixte?‘. I really liked Patrick and I miss his conversation . A very good man and an enthusiastic rugby fan. He always said that if he could not be French, he would elect to be Irish.
In recent years, I have spent a lot of time in Spain and South America. There, the traditional omelette is called tortilla francesa to distinguish it from the Spanish version, tortilla española. The latter is in a cake-form and includes potatoes, onions, garlic in the basic version and other ingredients in regional variations. It can be served hot or cold and on cocktail sticks as tapas or in slices, usually accompanied with fresh bread. With a glass of red wine, the latter usually serves as a meal for me.
And here in Cape Town I have my local bistrôt, Cafe Extrablatt, that serves a generous omelette, french fries, toast and wine at any time of the day. And super-friendly staff that never fail to feel one at totally home.
‘J’ai décidé d’être heureux, parce que c’est bon pour la santé’ (Voltaire)
For most of eight years, 1999-2007, I had a small mezzanine apartment in Paris at 24 Rue de Lille, one short block removed from the left bank, opposite the Louvre. It was a perfect location for me; a short walk to the metro at Rue du Bac and two minutes from the river, in the historic heart of the city. Over the years, I read many historical novels set in the area, and often I would walk the streets of the old city in the late evening, trying to envisage what it must have been like in past centuries.
I have never aspired to cook, other than to boil an egg, make a coffee, open a beer or a bottle of wine. When it comes to preparing a meal, I defer to those who are more expert than I. Over time, I ate at most of the restaurants and bistros within a ten-minute walk from my apartment, but the one that I most frequented was La Frégate, on the corner of Rue du Bac and Quai Voltaire, at the Pont Royal. There were very few weeks when I did not eat there at least once, and I soon became recognized as a local client, as distinct from one of the many tourists. But despite the earnest efforts of the maitre d’, Patrick, to introduce me to more exotic French cooking, it was rare that I deviated from my omelette au fromage or salade mixte. But Patrick and I had one passion in common – rugby, and we had many animated conversations about the prospects of the French and Irish teams, especially during the annual 6-nations competition.
To walk from my apartment to La Frégate, indeed to get to the river, I almost always walked down the last block of the Rue de Beaune. And there on the corner was the house in which Voltaire died, in 1778, as recorded on a plaque on the wall.
Voltaire was his pen-name. In real life he was François-Marie Arouet, born in 1694. He was a profligate writer of plays, books, essays, letters; the criticism of organised religions was a frequent theme in his writing. He wrote more than 50 plays, dozens of essays on science, politics and philosophy, several books on history and more than twenty thousand letters to friends and contemporaries. And yet, he is seldom read today.
When he was younger, he became wealthy, by exploiting a flaw in the French lottery, together with a syndicate of gamblers. His resulting wealth allowed him to be independent and able to pursue his academic interests.
Voltaire was reputed to work up to eighteen hours day and often fueled his energies with more that forty cups of coffee a day. He spent part of his life in prison, at one time in the Bastille, or in exile, and lived for most of his later life in Geneva. He was also an entrepreneur, setting up a successful watch business in Switzerland.
He never married nor had children, despite many relationships. On his death bed, he is reputed to have told the priests – ‘Let me die in peace’.
There are many buildings in central Paris with plaques recording their previous inhabitants. Like that of Voltaire, there are so many fascinating histories to be discovered. At one time, I aspired to document many of the plaques and to write a short historical summary of the lives of each subject.
If I were to list my four or five favourite destinations, then I would include Martigny in the Swiss canton of Valais. I have spent a few days there every year since 2010 and each year when leaving, I promise myself to return one more time.
Martigny is a relatively small town with a population of about 15,000, strategically placed at the junction of the routes from Italy, via the Grand-Saint-Bernhard pass, that from France, via the Route de la Forclaz and the Rhône valley, where the river turns ninety degrees northward, to eventually empty into Lac Léman.
During 1996-1998, I was employed as MD of a Swiss computer services company, with head office in Neuchâtel, and satellite offices in Zürich, Amsterdam, Paris and London. When I had the opportunity, I spent time in the mountains, hiking, scrambling and climbing: in the Jura in the early springtime, in the pre-Alp in summer and in the Alps in late summer, before the snow-line started to descend.
With no Swiss-German linguistic ability, but confidence in French, I tended to the cantons of Jura, Vaud, Geneva, Lausanne and Sion. And on my way to the Alps, I often passed Martigny: on the way up the Rhöne valley to Zinal or Zermat, up to the Col de Forclaz and on to Chamonix, or through Martigny to Verbier or the Val de Bagnes.
Only once did I stop on my way through Martigny and then but for a short time. I had seen a sign for a Roman amphitheatre. I was not disappointed. The site was well-preserved with a plethora of exhibits, photographs and documentation. My appetite for Martigny was whetted.
But it was not until 2010 that I returned to the area. I wanted to attempt the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in the autumn, but I was not confident that my lame leg could handle 20-30 km per day, so I decided to test myself, by walking from Geneva to Martigny, via the southern side of Lac Léman. The test was successful in that I managed the distance each day with no problem, despite the early July heat wave. As I had two days free before meeting Lotta and my sons in Chamonix, I decided to stay in Martigny and explore the town and surrounding area.
I returned to the amphitheatre and beside it there was now a new building housing the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard. It had been opened in 2006 and in addition to many kennels of Saint Bernard dogs, there was an excellent exhibition dedicated to the history of the Saint Bernard pass, with a theatre showing vintage films. I spent most of an afternoon there.
Close by the amphitheatre and the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard is the Fondation Pierre Gianadda. It is undoubtedly the most important cultural attraction in Martigny and was founded by Léonard Gianadda in 1978. He was a successful local engineer and when his workers started excavation for a new building on the outskirts of Martigny, they uncovered the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury. Gianadda abandoned his original plan and instead built a museum to encompass the ruins and dedicated it in the name of his younger brother, who was killed in a plane crash two years earlier. Today the museum has an exhibition of locally discovered Gallo-Roman artifacts, a large vintage car museum, a sculpture park, classical concerts and three times each year, an exhibition of paintings of a well-known master.
Down the other side of the narrow valley flows the river La Dranse, across which is the covered bridge, the Pont de la Bâtiaz, leading to a group of old houses huddled under the steep cliffs above. A steep path eventually leads one to Le Chateau de la Bâtiaz, towering over Martigny.
It was originally built in 1260 on the ruins of a Roman fort of the first century. In the constant conflict between the Dukes of Savoy and Sion, it changed hands many times until it was finally destroyed in 1518. It was restored in the 20th century.
When in Martigny, one of my favourite walks is to ascend to the Chateau de la Bâtiaz and continue up the steep mountainside to the upper vineyards. From there the path gently descends to the upper valley at Martigny-Bourg. For much of the descent, it is as if one is in a helicopter, such is the view of the town below.
On other days, I head up the Rhône valley through the orchards and vineyards to Charrat, across the valley to Fully and then back along the vineyards on the other side, until crossing the river back to Martigny. And of course, it goes without saying that I have my customary stop for a cold beer en route.
In 2009 the Tour de France passed through Martigny. That was the year my two elder sons cycled from Camberley in the UK to Chamonix, to meet us and their two younger brothers.
On their return to the UK, they decided to cycle over the Col de Forclaz at 1527m and down to Martigny, in time to see the Tour de France pass, before continuing on to Geneva. The descent from the Col de Forclaz is steep and the views are breath-taking, especially on a bicycle.
Once down in Martigny, the two lads somehow managed to find themselves on the wrong side of the barriers. The crowds must have thought that they were two clowns hired to entertain them, while they waited for the main act to arrive.
Having been in South Africa for most of this year, I have not managed to spend any time in Martigny and the Alps.
I set out in high spirits soon after breakfast – the sun shone and the air felt warm. The road climbed out of the town and into the country, past beautiful Basque farms with their traditional houses of white walls and red roofs, doors and shutters. The road climbed and descended without cease.
The way was well marked, or at least it was, until I realised that I had not seen a sign for some time. I could see the sea in the far distance, and rather than retrace my steps, I decided to continue and follow the coast to Hendaye.
Eventually I came to a sign for Hendaye Plage. It was soon after that the wind picked up and I could see a huge pile of black clouds over the mountain, heading directly towards me. The rain started slowly and then suddenly with full force. I was drenched before I could react and get out my poncho. There is not a lot one can do with no shelter, except press on and hope it soon passes.
But it did not pass and I eventually reached the centre of Hendaye Plage only to find out that I should have gone to Hendaye Ville, for which I never saw a sign. The guy who gave me the bad news that it was a further three kilometres, offered to drive me there, for the storm was getting worse. He was a surfer complete with board and I squeezed into the back seat. He did not seem to mind that I was rather wet. He said that he had once hiked around England and had received so much help from local people, often going well out of their way to help him find accommodation. He said that it was now his turn to be the Good Samaritan. He dropped me outside the train station at the Spanish border.
I caught the local Euskotren for four short stops to a hotel in Irun and checked in, still dripping wet.
Friday 12 April, 2013
Irun to San Sebastián – 25 km
I had a schematic map of each stage of the route across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and from my hotel room I could see what was almost certainly the path cutting across the mountain that stood between where I was and the sea. As the day was going to be somewhat more challenging than the days since Bayonne, I had an early breakfast and set off before 08h00.
I caught the Euskotren two short stops back to Irun, asked in a bar for directions and I was soon on the path, following the familiar yellow arrows indicating the Camino del Norte. The arrows are painted on walls, rocks, trees, posts, pavement etc. all the way to Santiago. The Spanish are rightly proud of their many well-marked caminos and whether one is a genuine religious pilgrim or just a casual hiker, the local people make one feel genuinely welcome. At least that had been my experience over many weeks of hiking in Spain in the previous two years. In contrast, my recent short walk in France did not leave me with such a positive impression.
For the first hour, the going was easy – a flat walk through marshlands, and then a steady climb to a path that followed the contours of the mountain, the same path that I could see from the hotel earlier that morning.
For the next ten kilometres, the going was gently up, gently down, until finally a sharp descent down to an inlet of the sea, at Pasai Donibane. I ended up on a quay, with no sight of the bridge that I had expected to cross to the other side. I spotted a man fishing and I asked him how I could cross the water. He laughed and said that I could walk across, but he did not recommend it. But just around the corner there was a boat that I could take. I did not mention my expected bridge, but I felt rather foolish nevertheless.
Once on the other side, the yellow arrows resumed and led me seawards. Eventually, they pointed towards a steep stair cut out of the rock of the cliff face. The steps were steep with only a low wall and I soon felt my heart thumping. I ascended slowly. The steps seemed to be interminable and I was glad that the rocks were dry; with rain, a strong wind and my bad leg, I would have found it quite challenging.
Once up and away from the cliff, the going was straightforward, with several short climbs and descents. Finally, there was San Sebastián below with its beautiful concave beaches. It reminded me of Acapulco in Mexico.
But I had not noticed the gathering clouds and before I got off the mountain, the rain started. I sheltered under some trees until it passed. It was obvious by the dark clouds that more rain was on the way, so I continued on my way down and to the centre of the town, to find a hotel for the night.
Finding a hotel did not prove to be very easy. Normally I would look for hotel signs, but where I expected there to be hotels, there were none. All I could find were pensiones and sleeping in somebody’s spare bedroom was not my scene. I asked some locals and they did not seem to know of any hotels and recommended that I find a pension. By now the rain had started falling heavily. I tried several pensiones, but all were full. In the end, I found one that had a room available, but the old lady that answered the door would only let me have it, if I paid for double occupancy. By then I was getting tired and quite wet, so I reluctantly agreed to an exorbitant rate for a room with a little bed, no table, no chair and the only socket contained the plug of the only lamp. And of course, no wifi.
But after I had showered and put on dry clothes, I felt better. It was still raining heavily, but I found a McDonalds close by, with wifi, and I caught up on my mail and the sports results.
And despite the crap bed, I slept the night through, without once wakening. The fresh air and the exercise always seem to have that effect on me.
I had not intended on returning to Uppsala until the end of April, but the heavy rains, flooding and unseasonal cold weather in Extremadura caused me to abandon my walking north from Seville to Astorga, and I reluctantly returned to Uppsala to conserve my funds.
But April in Uppsala is not great either. Even though the snow may have largely gone and the hour changed to summer time, the ground can still be frozen, the northern winds quite bitter and the paths thickly coated with grit, that will not be completely cleaned up until well into May.
It did not take me long to come up with ‘Plan B’ – to go to Mundaka to see if there remained any evidence of the Lázaga family, a family history research task that I have had in mind for several years. I have traced my sons’ ancestry through their mother’s ancestors to José Ramón Lázaga, who was born in Mundaka in 1838, but prior to that date I have not been able to verify the information that was passed to me, regarding three further generations dating back to 1736.
I reasoned that gravestones from the mid-1800s could still be legible and that it was possible that evidence of the prior existence of the Lázaga family may still exist. It was also possible that there were descendants of that name still living in the village and perhaps the village priest (if they still had one) would let me look at the church records.
And where is Mundaka? It is a small fishing port in the province of Bizkaia, about 40 km to the north-east of Bilbao. The closest airport to Mundaka from Sweden was Biarritz, so I decided to fly to there and walk from nearby Bayonne, following the pilgrim path (El Camino del Norte), which passes near to Mundaka, at Gernika-Lumo.
So, on 6 April I set off to the airport at Skavsta, about 90 minutes south of Stockholm, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, and arrived mid-morning in Biarritz, to a clear blue sky and a warm spring day.
Another camino was about to begin.
Monday 8 April 2013
Bayonne to Bidart – 14 km
As I sat there in the little plaza of Bidart, with its white-walled houses and red roofs, I could see the Pyrenees, as they descended to the precipitous Basque coast with its cliffs, inlets and beaches. The sky was still blue and the early evening sun felt warm and comforting.
But when I left Bayonne cathedral that morning, the western sky was dark and ominous, and the forecast was calling for afternoon storms. I was tempted to just take a bus to Bidart and avoid another soaking, but as the bus station was close to the cathedral, I decided to check if they really did have a pilgrim desk as stated on their website, staffed between 10:00 and 11:00 during the week. And sure enough, there was a desk and a very helpful girl, who gave me a rather tiny map, assuring me that the path was well-marked. So off I set off down the hill from the cathedral to the river, having overcome the temptation to take the bus and oblivious of the impending storms.
For the first hour, the path followed the river until it came to an intersection. I took the right fork, which led to the Coastal Camino, while the left fork continued alongside the river, eventually splitting into two routes over the mountains to Pamplona, one via Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and the other via the Baztan valley.
On my little map, the route was indicated with a broad-tipped yellow marker and it seemed to twist and turn and meander across Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz, like a drunken Irishman returning home from the pub on a Saturday night. There were some signs, but they were often not obvious, and at some intersections they seemed to be missing completely. It was not long before I was lost and asking directions of people, most of whom seemed to have never heard of the Chemin de Santiago, a situation that was to repeat at too frequent intervals.
And when the signage eventually did improve, the first storm suddenly hit, with hail like marbles, followed by torrential rain and strong winds. It did not last long, but long enough to turn the road into a raging river. Thanks to my recent frequent practice in Spain, I managed to quickly don my poncho, covering myself and backpack in record time. I looked like a large green turtle. I huddled under some trees until the worst was past. An hour later a second storm hit, but without hail. When it finally cleared, the clouds disappeared, and the sun shone for the first time that day.
The route skirted the airport and later passed by the Biarritz railway station. The first time I was at that station was in 1968, and it was in Biarritz that I bought my first bottle of cheap wine, in a small grocery store. Later in the hotel room I had to prise the cork out with a pair of scissors; I had no corkscrew. It was the start of my lifelong love affair with cheap wine.
After the station, the path led to a large lake, and followed the shore to the other end, before climbing to the main coastal road. From there a thirty-minute walk along a busy road took me to Bidart, my stop for the night.
There only seemed to be one hotel open – it was still very much off-season, and I seemed to be the first guest that day. The rate seemed very reasonable for France, and the room was surprisingly luxurious, with a beautiful view across fields to the mountains.
But finding a hotel with an available room was only part of the challenge; I now had to find my way from my room out of the hotel. The building contained a maze of corridors and stairs leading up and down. I now understood why the friendly barman insisted in taking me to the room and I should have paid more attention as to the route. For what seemed like an eternity, I went around and around, up flights of stairs and down, ending in store rooms, exits with the door locked, a boiler room. There were no windows and I was completely disoriented. Not once did I even end up at my room from where I had started out. Finally, I went through an unmarked door to what seemed like a large deserted restaurant in semi-darkness. At the other end were stairs which led to the bar and my friendly barman.
The staff had a good laugh at my getting lost.
Tuesday 9 April
Bidart to Saint-Jean-de-Luz – 10 km
As I did not intend to walk very far that day, I went to bed not setting my alarm, and woke up at first light to the dawn chorus. I had a leisurely breakfast of café au lait and croissant and set off in the morning sun, following the path down the hill from the church, as indicated by the Santiago sign. When I arrived at the edge of the village and an intersection with several roads merging, I could not see any further signs, and it was not obvious to me which way I should go. There was nobody around, so I decided to return to the village and get a map.
By that time the tourist office had opened, but no, they did not have any maps. A rather snooty woman said that there was no need for maps, as the paths were clearly marked. Anyway, I was told, most walkers follow the coastal path, as it is much more scenic and interesting. Turn left, then right and follow the path down to the beach, I was told and she started talking to the postman who had just come in the door. I was obviously dismissed, so I left. It seemed that the concept of customer service had not yet arrived in Bidart, but come to think of it, Paris was little different.
For the next couple of hours my progress was repetitive – a steep descent to the beach, a short walk along the sea, followed by a steep climb back up, sometimes to not far from where I started. The steps were made with log retainers holding back the earth, and all was wet, muddy and rather slippery, due to the heavy rain of the day before. And the wind, at times, was quite fierce. I regretted not having persisted with the ‘less interesting’ inland walk along country lanes.
When I eventually came to a new road development, the signs stopped, or at least I did not see them. I had enough of the coastal walk and did not feel like going back to find the sign, if indeed it existed. I decided to just follow the road into Saint-Jean-de-Luz, despite the horrendous traffic jam that seemed to have been created by the road works. It was further than I thought and for the next hour I walked alongside stationary or barely moving traffic. Not very enjoyable.
But what a delightful little town Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be. With its Basque architecture, narrow streets, wide beach and peaceful harbour, it was most appealing. I crossed the bridge to my hotel and extended my stay for an extra night, to allow me to explore the town the next day.
Wednesday 10 April
It turned out to be a beautiful day, and with only a slight breeze, the sea was calm. I walked along the seafront, but there was not one person on the beach. Obviously, there were no sun-starved Scandinavians in the vicinity and it was too early in the year for French tourists, at least for those who lie on beaches.
As evidenced by signs on many buildings and streets, the town’s main claim to fame was the royal wedding on 9 June 1660 between Louis XIV of France and María Theresa (the ‘Infanta‘), the daughter of Felipe IV of Spain. Louis XIV is best remembered as the ‘Sun King’, who built Versailles and ruled France for 75 years. The marriage was a result of the treaty ending 30 years of war between France and Spain.
I went to the church where the wedding had taken place, but I found it locked. It was quite a small church – it was probably a small town in 1660. I guess that only a few of the court could have witnessed the ceremony. Interestingly, after it was over, the main door of the church was bricked up. I have no idea why.
According one notice that I read, Anne of Austria – the mother of Louis XIV arrived in the town about a month before the ceremony and stayed until a week after. She was joined by the Infanta two days before the wedding. The building where they stayed is quite striking, with pink stonework. It belonged to a rich merchant.
In the past few years I have read several French historical novels set in the era of Versailles and the Sun King. I was not aware of the wedding in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and being there somehow seemed significant to me. Perhaps it reminded me of many evenings during my years in Paris, reading Alexandre Dumas novels over dinner and a carafe of wine in a restaurant, and later walking around the old city to see if a building or street I had read of still existed.
In a nostalgic mood, I went to the little central square, found a comfortable table in the sun, and ordered a cold glass of rosé.
After my experience of walking from Ustaritz to Cambo-les-Bains, I did not expect there to be a convenient path or a quiet country road to Espelette. So for five kilometres I walked along a very busy main road, frequently stepping well back and holding on to my hat every time a monstrous truck came hurtling by. And I lost count of how many drivers I saw talking on, or fiddling with, their phones. It was a relief to get off the race track and into Espelette.
Espelette is an attractive town, famous for its production of dried and powdered red peppers. Apparently they are sold at a covered market every Wednesday. As it was Friday, I was quite happy to have missed the market, as I am not a great enthusiast of crowds.
But my objective in going to Espelette was not to go shopping, it was to pick up the Camino de Santiago, which would lead me up the Baztan valley, over the Pyrenees and on to Pamplona. I spotted the typical yellow arrow marking near the church, but I was not able to find a second.
I asked several people for directions, but without luck. Even in a busy bar nobody seemed to know anything of it. Eventually I found a second and subsequent yellow arrow marks at the edge of the town, and started off in what I believed to be the direction of the next village, Ainhoa, which was about 6 km away.
But after ninety minutes of following the yellow arrows, of toiling up and down steep rocky paths, seeing only deserted farm buildings, and not a soul in sight, I started to feel uneasy. In the distance I saw a couple of modern looking houses on the other side of a valley, one with a car parked outside. So I set off down another steep rocky path, across a stream and up the other side. By the time I got to the houses, nearly two hours had elapsed since I left Espelette.
A woman answered my knock. She informed me that she knew nothing of a path to Ainhoa or a Camino de Santiago, but she could direct me to the main road, which involved retracing much of the way I had already come, and following another country road. I was quite lost. I eventually came to the main road from Espelette, with four kilometres to go to Ainhoa. In three hours I had progressed two kilometres towards Ainhoa.
The rest of the ‘hike’ along the main roads, through Ainhoa and on to the Spanish border at Dantxarinea, was relatively uneventful, but quite tiring, as it was a hot day.
Dantxarinea was something of a surprise to me. I expected a small run-down border town, no longer with a function, since the abolition of EU borders. Instead it turned out to be a bustling modern commercial centre stretching along both sides of the main road, with five service stations and very many large stores plus bars and restaurants.
Once across the border, the route was clearly marked, and more than once I was greeted with the traditional – buen camino. It felt as if I had come home. The road gently descended, until 45 minutes later I was in Urdax.
Why did I become so lost earlier in the day?
Until I go back and retrace my steps, I will not know. But I did receive something of a consolation in being told that evening, by my host, that it was quite a common experience among pilgrims starting in France.
And what had intended to be a walk of about 18 km, for me ended up as 28 km.
In former times, those who landed in the port of Bayonne to travel on to Pamplona or further, would go by the Baztan valley across the Atlantic Pyrenees. It was also the oldest path to Pamplona and on to Santiago de Compostella, pre-dating that of the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
So it was on a perfect early autumn day I set off from Bayonne, following the path along the banks of the River Nive. I saw very few people; an occasional runner, cyclist or a local, walking their dog. It was extremely peaceful; only the sound of birds or the buzzing of a bee.
But after 15 km the peaceful walk ended at Ustaritz with the constant roar of trucks and cars hurtling through the narrow streets of the town. I felt sure that there must have been a path or quiet road to Cambo-les-Bains, but according to the locals who I quizzed, the answer was a shrug of indifference.
So with no better alternative, I set off to walk the remaining 8 km to Cambo, along a noisy and heavily traveled road.
But eventually I arrived in Cambo, a delightful little town, and I put my ‘not-so-pleasant’ experience of French traffic behind me.
And the hotel was perfect. The owner, Laurent Rodriguez, his wife and beautiful daughter, made my stay most pleasant and nothing was too much trouble for them. I forgot to ask Laurent if he had played rugby, for he was built like a prop forward, with huge shoulders, massive arms and a neck like a tree trunk.
He was not someone that I would have relished having to tackle.