One and a half hours from Paris Nation by Bla Bla Car, Reims is in champagne country. Not far from the Belgian border, it is just north of the Wildlife Parc Naturel Régional de la Montagne de Reims, west of Metz and south of Lille.
I visited for part of a day and there is undoubtedly more to see. Julie, my driver, deposited me at the Gare / station (there are 2 entrances) and as we bade each other goodbye she kindly invited me to stay with her in a week’s time – she is a couch surfing host.
Opposite the front of the station is a park, Square Colbert, which was completely closed for landscaping, and beyond that, along the Boulevard du Général Leclerc, are the posh hotels. At right angles is Place Drouet d’Erlon, along which you will find eating places galore.
I unfortunately chose poorly (I wanted a place in the sun and a chèvre / goats cheese salad). I do not recommend Café Le Gaulois – the food was very poor quality and over priced.
The Catholic Église Saint-Jacques (Church of the patron Saint of the caminos (walking pathways, les chemins) in Spain (the one who gave Santiago de Compostella its name).
I found the Musée des Beaux-Arts quite by chance.
The next stop had to be the cathedral, stunning against the blue sky.
Round the side of the cathedral the Carnegie Library can be found.
I passed the Opéra, the opera house on my way back to the station.
‘If I can’t get behind myself in order to see what’s going on, if I can only live forwards but understand back, then it follows that at the very least I need time to walk, meditate or pray.’ Kirkegaard.
A few last shots of the exceptionally beautiful Sierra Calderona before moving on.
I left Olocau, near Valencia in Spain with Phil and Fred in the dark, with ice on the windscreen! Thanks for the lift!
Very soon the sun was rising red, orange and yellow in deep, deep colours on one side of the car, date palms silhouetted against the sky.
We drove into the city of Valencia with many kilometers of industrial sites including a sex toys supermarket.
On the other side of the car were pale wisps of pink and baby blue/yellow.
As we drove we knew it was only a brief gap in the Las Fallas festivities after Sunday night celebrations finishing at 5am and then starting again at 8am this bank holiday Monday. Sure enough as I waited for my Bla Bla Car, the sounds of the fireworks escalated until they were reverberating all around me.
Waiting in the cold for 1.5 hours was not much fun. There were no bars open for the toilet so I had to go in a public garden by the side of road 😦
On my third tour of the area I discovered a bakery and bought 3 cakes which turned out to be coconut which, apart from meat is the only thing I do not eat! It was colder and colder and there were many cars picking people up for Madrid.
Eventually, 45 minutes after our driver was due, the young woman next to me (who happily loved coconut cakes) phoned and we ascertained our lift was nearby. This is very unusual as Bla Bla Car drivers are usually very prompt. In addition it transpired that the third passenger was waiting at the wrong place.
As we drove out of the city towards Córdoba, we quickly hit a random road block with eight Guardia de Civil officers stopping people to breathalise them. Luckily not us!
Driving through the Requeña area, half way between Valencia and Albacete on the N111, I saw the same cliff colours I had been walking through all week – it is a strong orange brown land with an ancient tower and acres of vines mostly espaliered. They are like rows of black commas or embroidery made of dots; like flattened out oranges studded with cloves.
There was a motorway sign warning of hail, ‘niebla‘. I had some conversation: my driver has walked the Camino del Norte ‘muy bonito‘ she said, very beautiful. I dropped in and out of sleep as I finally warmed up again!
We were passing from Valencia to Castille-La Mancha through forests and mountains. The next time I jerked my head, bit my tongue and woke up there were green fields of flatness.
The journey cost each of us £32 and the two youngsters slept. Perhaps they had been up all night?
The driver is a lawyer from a big Cádiz firm. She is smiley and we had plenty of stops but she did check her phone while driving which I would have preferred she did not.
Like almost all women over 45 years, she wanted to know if I was walking alone and then said she wanted to come with me!
With 220kms to Córdoba there were still fields and fields of baby vines and we passed Bodegas Artisanos (artisan wineries). There was, as normal on these long journeys, a nice sense of companionship in the car – often sharing food and exchanging looks on hearing the snorer!
It is a very long drive, right across Spain (650kms). We took the Venta de Cardenas tunnel into the Province of Jaén where Javi (one of my lovely lodgers) grew up. Then the Autovía del Sur motorway which careers down towards Córdoba and there were still 280 kms to Seville. We sang along to Michael Jackson and outside it was all olives, full grown in rows as far as the eye can see.
We drove on through the rather brooding looking Sierra de Andújar mountains heading south. Raptors (buzzzards?) flew above the landscape. It was not a bad day to be spending so many hours travelling: dull and chilly although there was no snow like Dartmoor (England), the Asturias (northern Spain) or Edinburgh (Scotland)! Later there was pouring rain and we were 60kms from Seville making good time after our late start.
The wind was blowing the tops of the palm trees, all in the same direction of course, and there was sodden ground for the poor Camino Mozarabe backpackers to walk on. I saw my first two cranes’ nests on top of high poles (familiar from previous visits), and the ubiquitous huge black metal bull hoarding, silhouetted – left over from old advertising and now a sort of national symbol.
Here are some photos of my time in Seville.
I had a great couple of days in Seville with Pedro and Jesús: wonderful Shiatsu (see the professional and attractive ShenSations Shiatsu studio website ); attractive surroundings; and good food (especially the tapas last night with wonderful pulpo (baby octopus) and gambas (prawns) in olive oil and garlic. So lucky to be with locals who know the best places! (Una y Media, Camas).
Notes re. past blogs: G. told me the name of the very attractive bird which calls bou bou all day long: the Hoopoo with its black and white tail feathers and tuft on top of its head.
Thanks also to friends Cynthia and Sue for informing me of flower names.
And now I am driving through Monasterio, through which I walked last May 2017, on the way to Mérida. It will take me 2.5 hours on the bus to go the distance it took me to walk for 10 days. I remember it well!
I flew from Edinburgh at lunch time without any incidents, and had time to spare in Stanstead where I have never seen so many people in short shorts in such a small place!
My plane was arriving in Alicante at 9.30pm and I needed to be in Valencia by the morning. I had researched many different ways to make the transfer, and as previous readers of my blog will know, I have had adventures with Bla Bla Car in the past, so I went with that option. However, this time it backfired: the driver cancelled a few minutes before boarding for Spain and that left me without any way to make the journey that night as the final bus between the cities leaves at 9.30pm.
I remembered how people have turned up to help me when I have had challenges before, so when I was in my seat before take-off I asked the woman, Ana, in the next chair if she could check my Spanish translation, and she was a honey! As we were delayed on the runway (yes, Ryanair), she was invaluable in helping me search and book an Air bnb, as well as an early morning bus, so by the time I was in the air I had plans. Then we had time for stories of family and travel, cake decorating, and common kindness. The sun set like an inside out blood orange.
Of course arriving in Spain in July, even in the late evening is a hot thing to do. But I managed the bus into town smoothly (2 euros 70) and made the journey on foot to Pilar’s. Oh, to exist was to be covered in a smooth, thick, sheen of sweat!
I had not brushed up on my Spanish before leaving as I meant to, and so was rather pleased to hear myself finding accessible vocabulary which I thought I had forgotten. Pilar and I swapped walking stories and tales of a knee which won’t allow her to climb. I managed about 5 hours sleep.
Walking through dark Alicante at 4am I marveled at the ink black sky and waning moon. Bored Guardia Civil were on their phones, and divers back packers on the edge of the pavement or draped over rucksacks with black eye masks. Me? this time I had a suitcase and smaller rucksack so I did not belong to that itinerant group.
I managed to dissuade a random man from linking up with me, and on the bus Spanish radio voices rattled away, and girls made excited phone calls as I drifted in and out of sleep. I was so tired that a stiff neck and hips did not deter me.
And in no time at all there was Valencia, its sun rising in pastel colours of baby blue and pink with old gold at the edges and it was already 25 degrees at 7am. I had been warned!
And so I arrived in Olocau, and the market was in full swing as we drove through the village (see previous blog).
The first thing I noticed was the wonderful aroma of lemony pine. I was welcomed by the dogs Pollo (chicken in Spanish) and Louis who were to be my companions for the next three weeks.
First I had free range eggs from their chickens for breakfast, and later I was shown how to feed and care for them.
There was sort of surround sound, a constant zzzzz, that might be mistaken for electricity but was of course cicadas.
Inside there was the sound of trickling water from the goldfish tank, outside the swimming pool jets, and occasional renting of the peace by the dogs’ warning barks.
Actually there was plenty of quiet between it all for my meditation, and although in the Sierra Calderona at this time of day the sun was around and above, in the valley was a very green cool.
Above the house and village are grand cliffs and I half expected the heads of American presidents to morph out of them.
My first proper walk was wonderful for the first 3 hours, but then I became aware that the sun was still on my right (it was about 10.30am) and that therefore I was heading north. I should have curved around and started to head for home before this, so I must have missed the path. Eventually I discovered I was in Antigua Marines. The scale of the map was too small for me to find paths through the mountains, and the only way google showed me home was by road. That was when I discovered that the dogs were not traffic savvy and I could not control them. In the end I hit upon phoning Sue, a woman I had not even met yet, to be collected in the car. What a disaster!
Other walks I made during the following week were frequently in 30 degrees, with warm golden evening light, and I got lost a lot: I came across a fountain that way (photo at top of page); I admired the goats which were multi-coloured with twisted horns, bells tinkling, and ear tags – they were nervous of me but not of the dogs; and the magnificent variety of greens.
Today I removed a tiny bloated frog from the bottom of the pool, yesterday more than one whopping great spider, and the day before a courageous hedgehog. I do not know how long he had been there, and I know hedgehogs love to swim (so it says on the internet anyway), but then I saw him going under and so I hoiked him out with the dustpan which I had been using to clear the patio. He just stayed put on the grass for ages, breathing but not even hiding his snout. Eventually I wrapped him in a towel, put him in a box and placed the box in the flower bed. I thought he might be starving if he had been in the pool for hours (or even all night). An internet site suggested he might like scrambled eggs and green beans, but by the time they had cooked and cooled he had left.
Pontorson 10.5.17; Brittany circular, coastal walk / ‘les balades’ (rambles) / ‘les randonnées’ (hikes) – La Bernière to Port de Pornic 11.5.17, both France.
Journey via Bla Bla Car to Zaragoza, Spain 12.5.17.
On the Camino Francés in Spain, the hostels are where you meet other backpackers and exchange tales. Up until today, I had ￼not encountered anyone in France, but the two women I had seen the previous night were breakfasting when I got down to the youth hostel kitchen. After being initially engaged in (French) conversation with a rather interested man who told me he did all sorts of work, anything he was asked to do, and then kissed me goodbye (yes, the dangers of being a single female traveller!), I was invited to sit with them for a while. They asked me what I was up to and after explaining, I was enthusiastically given a piece of paper by Lysiane, with her name and address on it, and told that if I ever visited Brussels I could stay with her in return for Shiatsu. Almost everyone I meet and talk to knows what Shiatsu is and likes it; it really is quite notable compared with the UK.
Myself and a number of others arrived at the station before it opened. It was unclear to us all how we should get tickets and where to go, until a brusque woman came to open up. We waited in the gorgeous sun before realising we needed to cross the tracks for the stopping train to Rennes which I had booked online the day before. A Japanese couple regaled us, as we waited, with a comparison between the efficiency of French signposting and the contrasting confusion in Britain.
My day’s walk on the Brittany coast began in the rain at La Bernière-en-Retz, a small town where a lot of street work was being carried out, but that was otherwise deserted. The sea was well out, revealing broad sands with low stone walls. I felt immensely light-hearted, as happy as I was when walking in northern Spain in the Autumn of 2016.
The path was easy to find and varied. Sometimes it was on cliffs, at others beside dwellings. Always there was the expansive view of the water, with miniscule collectors of seafish in the distance. After a while there was a series of platforms from which hung voluminous lift-nets. I was told that when the tide is in, these fill with fish. These traditional ‘carrelets’ are expensive apparently, but bring high yields and are found all along this coast.
The low stone walls are also demarcations related to fishing, left over from many years ago, and easily seen at certain times of the day.
Grassy paths wound up and over the rocks, seagulls shrieked, and the fresh breeze bought welcome fragrances of the cypress trees.
Picnic lunch was taken (illegally, it transpired) under ancient stones to shelter from the wet.
Port de Pornic with its gentle harbour, silver grey turrets, and small yachts came as a surprise. Rather quaint and sophisticated by turns, it is quite a centre but I did not investigate. Instead, here I turned and headed back the way I had come, stopping to divest myself of waterproof trousers as the sun started to show itself, seeing things from back-to-front and in a different light, literally.
The next day I took a Bla Bla Car from Bordeaux, via Bayonne, Irun, and Pamplona to Zaragoza to stay with the genial Yvonne.
Bla Bla Car is generally unknown in the UK. It is a fantastic system, originally set up so that someone who is making a long-distance journey has company while they drive. Nowadays some complain that it has become a sort of glorified taxi service, but on the whole I found it to be a social thing.
It operates in France and Spain, and there is a website where you search for the setting-off point and destination, and then identify who you might like to go with. Like air bnb, the drivers are vetted and reviewed, and you can guarantee that the cost is less than the cheapest mode of public transport for that same journey. Sometimes the driver reserves the right to choose, and although you have paid (I used PayPal for safety), you can be rejected, and then the fee is repaid immediately.
In fact, it was often tricky to find a train or bus which goes went a to b at the times I was searching, whereas it was always possible to find someone who was driving, once you got the hang of the site. And of course I met fascinating people. On the first leg, from Bordeaux to Bayonne, I sat in the back with a young woman who told me all about her life, parents, health and loves, showing me photos and shedding a tear now and then.
At Pamplona we said good luck to two gentlemen who had both injured themselves on the Camino, been home to recover, and were re-joining it there. Then Charles, the car owner, and I made the final leg to Zaragoza, arriving at the radio station with messages flying between myself, my expectant host, and the driver. I have found all the drivers this month to be courteous and obliging. It was good that I had my daughter’s old Nokia with a topped-up Spanish SIM in it as we were late and so I was able to communicate by text and phone.
I had been asked several times why I was bothering to go to Zaragoza. It seems to have a poor reputation with tourists as a predominantly industrial city. My reasons for going: Yvonne kindly invited me when I met her at her father’s funeral and that was my plan – if I am invited somewhere I go, that’s how I choose between all the possible amazing places in Spain. Result: it was a fascinating and enjoyable place to visit, made considerably better I am sure by being shown around and treated like a queen by a resident!