Haystack Rakhiv Carpathians

The Ukrainian Centre of Europe: a visit to Carpathian Rakhiv

“Don’t forget to look after your bag and watch out for thieves!”

I reassured my cousins that I’d take care and I boarded the bus to Rakhiv, wiping condensation from the window to give one last wave. I fought an urge to haul my backpack off the bus and ask if I could stay another day or so. But I had a reservation in the mountains of Transcarpathia that could no longer be cancelled.

One of the best things about Rakhiv is the journey in and out. I was on a bus heading south from the Ivano-Frankivsk region and we were soon winding through the forests and open pasture of the Carpathians, past traditional wooden structures. More surprising was the billboard for Erotic Massage and the bizarre row of brand new terraced houses painted in primary colours that wouldn’t be out of place in Bristol.

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Rustling of family ghosts: the bus to Starunya

“It’s like you’re going to the moon! A place with only a one way ticket.”

I was in the tourist office in Ivano-Frankivsk, trying to find the return bus times to Starunya, the village where my father was born in 1914. I already had the details of the three daily buses out, but no return buses were listed anywhere. The young woman was stumped too.

“I’m not sure if I can risk going,” I said. “It’s too far to walk back.”

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Enjoy the region and take your time: The Interrail diaries

A speedboat cut across my vision and pivoted when the owner caught sight of me sitting on the rocky shore. It was the mid 1980s, in Savonlinna, Finland, and Scandinavia was sweltering under a midsummer heatwave. The boat pulled up and I kept my eyes on the man’s face, trying not to look down at his turquoise Y-fronts as he talked and shrugged and made suggestions. Yes, I was Interrailing. No, I didn’t want to join him on his boat. No, I really wasn’t tempted to stay another day and join him at ‘a country house’

These memories surfaced recently as I read an article in the Guardian about the resurgence of Interrailing. Like the author, I’ve also kept the diaries from my trips across Europe. Little grey spiral notebooks purchased from Boots, with detailed itineraries and page after page of vocabulary and pronunciation notes for Portuguese, Greek, Norwegian, Finnish and Czech.

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Sète canals

Sète: where the Canal du Midi meets the Mediterranean for a spot of jousting

The two boats moved towards one another, one blue, one red. From each boat rose a ladder, with a boy perched on a platform at the end, high above the water. As the boats became parallel, each boy raised a 2.8 metre wooden pole and I watched, perplexed, as they tried their best to dislodge each other, until the boy from the red boat lost his balance. Cheers and jubilant music drowned out the noise of the splash

This is marine jousting, a tradition that began in Sète in 1666 to celebrate the opening of the town’s port, and which continues today with its own training school. That night I must have been watching the juniors, but it’s also an adult sport, where bachelors (blue boats) fight the married jousters of the red boats. Traditions aside, it felt weird watching the town’s people egging on their children to poke each other into the canal.

At least the water looked clean.

The layout of Sète was shaped by Louis XIV’s decision to end the Canal du Midi here; streets face each other across the canal grid lines, with the tables of fish restaurants close to the water’s edge. The odour of fresh bream, salmon, oysters and mussels follows you as you walk down one waterfront, cross a bridge and then walk up the other side. Moored boats line the frontages, and at one point were broken up by the looming bulk of a visiting tall ship.

The town is overshadowed by the slopes of Mont Saint-Clair. Above the narrow terraced streets of the upper town are hundreds of steps that lead to the summit, where you gain a view that encompasses not only the port of Sète behind you but also the Thau Lagoon that stretches 20 km inland. You’ll see the 800 or so shellfish farms in neat grids across the inland sea, but not the other thing for which the lagoon is renowned – its seahorses.

Walking westwards down the Mont Saint-Clair, the palm-lined roads contrast with the cramped terraces of the eastern side; houses remain concealed behind long driveways and broad gates. Back down on the main corniche coastal road we followed a parallel path above small coves, where succulents cling to cliffs that are themselves overshadowed by holiday apartment blocks.

Sète is an open air museum of street art, with artists encouraged to cover the town’s walls. Murals range from an impressive one covering the wall of the Lycee de Paul Valery, to a slightly unnerving mural on the outer walls of a primary school with strange marine creatures celebrating tielles, the spiced octopus pies that are a speciality of Sète.

I don’t know what it is about tables set out along a waterfront, but they often generate an urge to just sit down and spend the rest of my life there, reading, writing, painting and gazing out at the water and the fishing activities. The Pointe Courte peninsula has more streets of coloured terraces than you’d think was possible on such a tiny spit of land, and I was drawn to a string of metal tables and chairs on the narrow waterfront. It wasn’t a café, as I’d first thought, but an outside living space for the houses on this side. Fishing nets were hanging everywhere, and an elderly man sat fixing one in a lean-to. More nets were piled up in a type of sentry box, where a sleek black cat watched the antics of the peninsula’s cats with disdain.

La Pointe Courte is also the name of the unofficial first French New Wave film: the self-funded 1956 debut of Agnès Varda. The film documents the hardships of the fishing community, and when a young man wants to romance a neighbour’s daughter, how must he prove his worth?

By none other than showing his prowess in a marine jousting tournament.

Carcassonne citadel

A stopover in Carcassonne: oui ou non?

Need to buy a replica medieval helmet and sword? Fancy flouncing around in costume like a Kate Mosse character?  All this can be done whilst visiting the fortified city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s up there at number 20 of France’s most visited sites.

In summer, the main town has a vibrant feel, with plenty of outdoor cafes and a stream of tourists eating ice cream as they wander to and from the fortifications of la cité. Boats will cruise you along the Canal du Midi and I once spent a couple of wonderful days cycling in both directions along the towpath – very bruised from bumping over the tree roots, but happy.

Now, on a Sunday in April, I zigzagged to avoid the dogsh*t as I walked through the shuttered town, and wondered why I’d come back. The town was dead, but did I really want to join the throngs of visitors up in the fortress?

Of course I did. From the Pont Vieux over the River Aude, the outer ring of the concentric fortifications looms up ahead on the opposite bank. There’s little indication that a portion of the 360,000 or so annual tourists are swarming around inside.

As I ducked past the costumed soldier at the Porte Narbonnaise,  the atmosphere became transformed from dead Sunday to Disney wonderland. Here almost everything was open, with shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, Marseille soap, furs, and more jewellery. Like many must-sees, Carcassonne is a casualty of what it offers in terms of impressive heritage. These fortifications date right back to the Roman occupation, and fans of Kate Mosse novels will know that the cité has an ominous history as a home of the persecuted Cathars, who were nevertheless expelled from there in the early 13th century. Perhaps some visitors are particularly drawn by whatever lies at the end of the ominous signs that point the way to les tortures.

Of more interest to me was a poster proclaiming that Carcassonne is the only town in Languedoc-Rousillon where Occitan is taught from Primary right through to High School. The term Occitan, or the langue d’oc, came into being in the 14th century to differentiate between the languages spoken in the south and the north of France. The langue d’oc, spoken where oc was the word for yes, is a legacy of the region’s proximity to Spain and Italy.

As a linguist, I view Occitan as an umbrella term, rather than a clearly defined, individual language. There are a number of related varieties within southern France, such as Languedocien and Gascon, all with the same Latin root, and all with few contemporary speakers. As I noted in my book, over 90% of the Ariège population in 1864 were speakers of Gascon, rather than French, yet hardly anyone can speak it there now.

But here in Carcassonne, pupils can choose from an entire curriculum in Occitan. And it’s about more than just maintaining the language of their ancestors. The similarities of Occitan to Catalan, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese mean that it’s a bridge to learning those other languages.

So, with all the crowds and consumerism, is Carcassonne worth a visit? It’s true that the narrow inner streets are crammed with people, but few seem to venture the short distance to the outer ramparts, where you gain a true perspective of the size of these fortifications.  From here there’s also a view that stretches across the terracotta rooftops of Carcassonne, and, if you’re lucky, a close-up of a banking Ryanair plane as it prepares to land.

Similarly, if you can pull yourself away from the busy Place Marcon, there are quiet squares where few venture, such as the Place St Jean, with its view across the ramparts. And as the darkness descends, so does the magic; the floodlit ramparts have an eerie quality, and there are restaurants on the side streets that’ll transport you from Disneyland back into gourmet France.

Best of all, responsible dog owners are greeted with free bags on arrival at the fortress. That means clean pavements.

In search of Dordogneshire: Bergerac in the time of Brexit

Back when I was researching English incomers in the Ariège Pyrenees, many people cited Dordogne as a kind of benchmark. It was a way to disassociate themselves from that stereotype of Little England:

‘I think people come here because they don’t want that Dordogne thing. They want to take part in the French culture. They don’t want the English on the doorstep all the time.’

So if Dordogne didn’t exist, perhaps it would be necessary for the English to invent it, to have something to identify against. We also appear to have invented an odd pronunciation – Dordoyn – that rhymes with groin rather than Sonya. I wonder where that came from?

Anyway, my pursuit of Dordogneshire began with just 32 euros for a five hour journey from Carcassonne to Bergerac. After a heart-sinkingly dull approach to the famed wine town, my spirits picked up as soon as I wandered around the half-timbered buildings that line the narrow alleys of Bergerac’s medieval centre.

The Musée de la Ville tells how the Brits were once the principal buyers of the area’s wine, with a preference for a rather weak rosé. That was until the 18th century, when the Dutch market replaced the British and led the vintners to produce stronger reds.

On hearing I was from England, the museum officer immediately asked if I was one of the 8,000 Brits who lived in the Périgord region. Apparently they mostly live in the hilltop bastide towns rather than Bergerac itself. Predictably, the second question was about Brexit – pff! – which gave me an opportunity to use all six of the words for crazy I’ve learned.

Being early April, many restaurants remained closed, but I found one that was sufficiently intimate to strike up a conversation with the woman at the next table: a Dutch woman who’d just begun a 10-week hike to Santiago de Compostela. She was walking the pilgrim’s Way of St James.

“And you, you’re fleeing Brexit?” I ignored the snorts of laughter from the other tables and asked her about The Way. She described it as a metaphor for living: how you cope with the walk can reflect how you live your life.

According to her, Le Brexit is also metaphorical; we can’t physically leave Europe, as Britain shares the same tectonic plate as the continent.

The next day I joined the Pilgrim for a Dordogne river cruise on one of the old gabarres boats. Sadly, we waited in vain for enough people to turn up to make the required number. But the guide entertained us for a whole hour with a commentary on just about everything, such as the lift in the river to help the salmon get upstream, and les Anglais, of whom he seemed fond. Mais le Brexit, pff!

The next day, standing in the airport queue, I wondered if he’d come across the English man in front of me. Mr No Deal smiled vacantly while another, very patient, English man tried to explain what ‘trade’ is, and why the local police force not being any good isn’t a reason to leave the EU. I had an urge to tell Mr No Deal about the tectonic plate, as I had an idea he’d turn up with his tools to dig us to victory, I mean freedom. Let us take back control of our tectonic plate, so we can float away into a sovereign sunset!

In summer Bergerac must feel very different when the narrow cobbles ring to the footsteps of the visitors, but it’s not Dordogneshire. Almost all of the very detailed heritage information signs were in French only, and so were those in the museum. There wasn’t an English menu to be seen either. The only English I heard was in response to the Pilgrim asking for tea in a wine bar: Madame, you’ve come to the wrong place!

On the last night I hugged the Pilgrim goodbye and wished her luck, feeling envious. I liked Bergerac and I didn’t really want to leave, and that was probably because I hadn’t found Dordogneshire.

But there, at the tiny airport, were the clues. A large estate agency instead of a duty free shop, and posters advertising relocation services and English renovation architects. The English are all upstream, like the salmon. That gives me a reason to come back. Pff!  

Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes

A stopover in Nîmes: slow travel in the South of France.

It’s the first day of spring, although the Jardins de la Fontaine smell more like early summer. Half the population of Nîmes is sitting on the lawns of the 17th century park, like the Uber Eats cyclist taking a break, and the other half are in the outdoor cafes of the old town. I walk up the balustraded stairways and look down at the fat orange fish in the ornamental ponds until my eyes are drawn to vivid purple amongst the green.

A path leads up through the pine woods to the highest point in Nîmes and the oldest of the Roman sites, the Tour Magne. From the top of the tower the line of the Via Domitia, built by the Romans to link the Alps with the Pyrenees, still carves through the city.

From up here you gain a true perspective of the Arènes de Nîmes – a gigantic bowl of a Roman amphitheatre with 34 rows of seats that rise up and outwards.

As I leave the Tour Magne, four police officers amble up to it. France is on alert with the Gilets Jaunes demos, but these four act more like curious tourists than law enforcers. I see them again and again that afternoon, wandering round and smiling, looking at things rather than people.

Crossing the road back into the pedestrianised old town, it’s a surprise to come face to face with one of the best preserved temples from the Roman world, right here in the middle of Nîmes.  The Maison Carrée has been a centrepoint of the city for almost 2,000 years.

It’s 6pm and still hot so I go into the Amorino ice cream shop where they carve my scoops into flower petals and politely check that I understand that lime basilic comes with basil as well as lime. As I step out of the shop I almost collide with a very elderly man in violently patterned shorts. He barks at me in a strangulated voice, in a language that could be English.

Darkness falls and it’s time to join everyone else eating outdoors. I choose a table opposite a narrow alley with a view through to the massive grey stones of the amphitheatre.  16 euros to sit here under the still-swollen moon, with a duck burger du Perigord and a small pichet of white wine; a bargain.

Taking the Eurostar from London to Avignon? Nîmes is just an hour or so by frequent train service from Avignon central. See Loco2 for times and tickets.

All of the Roman sites can be visited. Read more about visiting Nîmes here.

Technicolour Dreams: a day at the France Show 2019

“I wonder if punters don’t just want to read about the romantic Peter Mayle/Place in the Sun fantasy?” remarked a literary agent to me when I was writing A House at the End of the Track. I’m happy to say I’m proving him wrong. Apparently the book is sparking people’s dreams to move to France as well as giving a new perspective on the dream’s reality.

That word ‘dream’ crops up all the time, not least in the property websites and the big shows that sell France. I’d talked to people in the Ariège who’d ‘discovered’ the region whilst talking to an estate agent at one of the France Shows at Olympia. With a free day in London that coincided with the France Show 2019, I went along to see how ‘the dream’ is presented vis à vis practical considerations.

From the magazine racks stacked with French Property News that proclaim Technicolour DREAMS, to the giant images of lavender among the stalls of French properties, food and wine, you step straight into an environment of the dream as pull factor for both holidaymakers and prospective migrants.

At least the FNP magazine balances the dream with reality, as this month’s practical articles deal with issues such as destructive termites and English cowboy builders. And plenty of assistance was on offer at the show, from English-speaking bank accounts in France to insurance and language learning, including an enjoyable session from Arnaud’s Language Kitchen.

So perhaps we should think less in terms of a dream, with its connotations of fantasy, and more about, well, an aspiration or ambition, perhaps. And what’s wrong with calling it a plan? When researching A House at the End of the Track I’d been surprised by those who’d bought a house in the Ariège on a whim. Sometimes they’d gone into an estate agents’ on holiday and come out with a house. Others simply wanted more space than they could afford in the UK and had looked to France, despite having never visited the country.

The whole idea of “moving to France for a better life” was a generic phenomenon that sometimes blurred the distinctiveness of place. To some incomers, Ariège could have been anywhere in France, as long as it had the right house. The country itself was sometimes an amorphous backdrop, affordable “France”, a commodity that people didn’t always examine beyond its ability to offer the right house at the right price. It seemed too easy to come to the Ariège inhabiting an idea rather than a place, and when the idea became the place, it was not always what people had imagined or intended.


A House at the End of the Track.

So it was good to see plenty of services to help people make a more informed decision, like the ‘hands-on orientation of life’ offered by re-nesting experts Renestance – you get yourself to somewhere like Montpellier or Beziers and they’ll show you the ropes as well as the properties. That word ‘dream’ is right there in their branding of a French Lifestyle Dream, but at least they’re looking beyond the house to the life that comes with it.

The demographic wandering around the France Show was surprisingly varied, and not a majority white, middle class, thinking-about-retirement slice of middle England that some have declared it to be. Plenty of people were approaching retirement though, perhaps looking for a challenge or wanting to avoid that ‘digging in to die’ feeling that one of my interviewees described to me.

I steered clear of the food and drink stalls, shocking one stallholder when I told her I’m not a foodie. “Why not?” she shrieked. I avoided the can-can dancers too, and instead listened to writer Anthony Peregrine contrasting Lancashire with the Languedoc. I don’t suppose anyone was surprised to hear about Montpellier’s lack of drunks on a Saturday night compared with Morecambe. The audience of dreamers would undoubtedly have found his humorous and affectionate view of life in France quite encouraging, although Peregrine has also written ambivalently about The English re-colonisation of south-west France for the Daily Telegraph .

A Saturday night in Montpellier…

Back into Dream territory and the audience sat up alert for Janine Marsh’s description of her life as an expat in rural northern France. Forget the lack of weekend drunks in Montpellier compared with Morecambe – we know that! – people want to hear about how easily they can make the dream come true. According to Janine, as long as you’re prepared to work hard and watch a lot of YouTube tutorials, you can transform a French wreck into a house. I guess that was what some people had come to hear, but I hope they realise that French Building Regulations are not the same as ours.

Like any dream, it’s vulnerable: to the economy, to exchange rates, to illness, to unexpected termite infestations, to lower-than-expected bookings for your gîte and to the uncertainty of political developments such as Brexit. But despite these factors, in that grim cavern of Olympia, in a city that’s trying to keep its doors open while all around they’re slamming shut, the dream to escape to sunflowers and lavender is very much alive. If the idea of rosé on the patio is your dream, then good luck, and I don’t blame you one bit.


48 hours in: Lviv

A guest post I wrote for travel blogger Yellobrickroad

yellobrickroad

With central European hotspots such as Krakow and Prague becoming overloaded with tourists, I recently visited Lviv, in Western Ukraine, for a short city break in December.

Formerly known as Lemberg, the city of Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, when it became Polish Lwów during the interwar period.

The city endured a tug-of-war status between Germans and Soviets in WW2, before the Soviets took control and it became part of the USSR. This all ended in 1991 when Ukraine became independent, and since then Lviv has become accessible and welcoming to visitors – with more speaking English than ever before. This is only going to increase, now that Ryanair fly direct from London.

Where to stay

I stayed in the Aparthotel Horowitz,whichisveryclosetothemainsquare. This location was great as it’s within walking distance to most sites and tons of dining options.

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Lviv from the top of the Town Hall

The no. 9 tram: December in Lviv

“You from here, then? Only you seem to know what’s what.”

I laughed and shook my head at the English couple, fresh off the Stansted flight, and explained, pointing to the large ‘5.00 UAH’ written below the airport bus timetable. “The fare’s written here, look,” I said.

I was curious to know why they’d chosen to come to Lviv in December. It turns out they’d planned to go to France, but had been tempted by the ridiculously cheap flights to a place called Lviv that sounded interesting.

“And you?”

“I came here once before. I’ve come back to ride the trams.”

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