“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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.
“I came here once before. I’ve come back to ride the trams.”
It was all triggered by black and white photographs sent to my father long ago…
Growing up, I’d heard a lot about Poland, where my late father had been born at the end of WW1. Ending up in England during WW2, he’d been unable to go back ‘home’ when the war ended, as eastern Poland became part of the USSR. I’d had a child’s simplistic understanding of it, that the Russians took it from Poland. Polish rule/influence over Western Ukraine (then known as Galicia) certainly goes back centuries, although those borderlands became part of the Austrian Empire from the late 18th century until the end of WW1.
In fact my father had been born when it was Austria. It was only when the Austrian Empire collapsed that the borderlands became part of Poland, in spite of the many Ukrainians living there, who felt it should form an independent Ukraine. All this helped to generate a strong Ukrainian nationalist movement that continued until independence in 1992.
At home all we ever heard about was Poland and ‘the Russians.’ Nothing about Ukrainian people.
I began to spend hours poring over the photographs. My father’s sister had lived and died in his village, and she was recognisable in the photographs as both a young girl and an elderly woman. We knew she had a daughter, my father’s niece, who was presumably the Justyna whose name was written on a piece of paper, along with the address of his village. That was all we really knew about in terms of family.
Yet the photographs showed many different people. There was a family of five, staring apprehensively at the camera against a backdrop of traditional embroideries. Another showed a large family gathering: parents in the centre surrounded by 18 other people. Who were they? Could they be Polish relatives? Or just long-ago acquaintances?
As time went on I became fixated on filling in the gaps. I contacted a Ukrainian tourist guide whose portfolio included family research. By a remarkable coincidence he knew my father’s village and agreed to go and talk to people. I was expecting maybe a few names and dates gleaned from the cemetery.
I hadn’t expected a set of videos of people talking about my father, and retelling passed-down stories from the war. They remembered the only time he dared to visit, back in the 1970s when he was accompanied by the KGB at all times. One man even referred to my father as ‘uncle’, remembering the parcels of hard-to-get items such as razors that Dad had sent them.
Yet these people weren’t Polish; they were Ukrainian. Nor were they blood relatives. They were in-laws: the family of my father’s first wife. He’d never talked about her, a shadowy figure who’d died very young. Suddenly she had a name – Varvara – and her sister-in-law and nephew were very much alive in the video. It was time to pay a visit.
Having travelled by train to the closest city of Ivano-Frankivsk, Terry and I set out to visit the village with Andriy, the local guide/interpreter/driver. Once again, I didn’t dare to expect much. Would people be happy to rake up the past? Would any of these people even be at home that day?
Andriy pulled the car up at a huge pile of ripe pumpkins, behind which stood the old single storey house where my father had lived with his wife and her family back in the 1930s. The nephew-in-law and his family use it for storage nowadays and live next door. Although Varvara’s brother had died some years ago, that brother’s elderly wife was brought to meet us and answer my questions. Photo after photo was handed over, eliciting mostly vague comments about them being ‘other people’. Then the large family group was recognised, with the father noted as a ‘man with 16 children’. And finally a pivotal moment when the elderly lady pointed to herself – she was the mother in the photo of the family of five.
Although her husband had passed on, the three children in the photo were alive; in fact I was standing in the son’s garden (my father’s nephew-in-law). He was working away but his wife invited us inside for ‘breakfast’. By amazing luck it was a feast day: Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when family sit and eat together. The homemade vodka came out and almost half of the bottle disappeared, which was a feat considering three of the five people weren’t drinking.
I was still no closer to finding out if any actual blood relatives were living nearby but I kept on prompting them. And in a very roundabout way it eventually came out that the ‘man with 16 children’ had been the husband of my father’s niece, Justyna. The writing on the back of the photo explained how the extended family had gathered back in 1973 to see off one of the sons, Stepan, who was joining the army. Surely some of these cousins might still be alive?
Galina held my hand as she led me through the peaceful cemetery that stretched over the hillside. I had a small amount of my father’s ashes to deposit; he’d always wanted to come back. Then Galina excitedly pointed out the graves of Justyna and her husband. I could see that the large photographs superimposed onto the headstones were clearly the same people as the parents in the family gathering. And nearby was the grave of one of the 16 children. I would never get to meet Stepan after all, as he had died in his forties. But I’d only missed Justyna, his mother, by six years.
And now we had another invitation, from the mother and daughter pictured in that family of five. As our car drew up, Hanna the daughter raced out of the house and hugged us; like her mother she was touched that a photograph of her and her family had been brought all the way from England. ‘And your father sent us photos of you!’ she said. This time the moonshine was strawberry-infused vodka.
How things get turned on their head. I still don’t know whether there are living Polish relatives, although Hanna thought so and promised to find out. Instead I have a Ukrainian not-quite-family; the in-laws with whom my father kept in contact for decades, sending them parcels and photos, and visiting them that one time. They must have meant something to him.
I’d enjoyed using the dozen or so words of Ukrainian I’d learned, and when Hanna wagged her finger at me, I recognised the word for “one”, but nothing else. Andriy stepped in to explain fully: “She wants to know if you’ll come back within one year?”
I knew the word for “yes”.
“And she says she’ll have you speaking Ukrainian in one week.” Now there’s a challenge.
As the car lurched over the stony track out of the village, laden down with gifts of moonshine, preserved mushrooms and a bucket of honey, I looked back. Scattered houses with enormous metal gates, a child drawing water from a well, and the dome of the church visible through the trees. I wanted to spend a day in that cemetery. I wanted to learn Ukrainian and how to make moonshine. Above all I wanted to walk through the fields that rise gently to the edge of the forest. One year.
With thanks to Andriy of Green Ukraine for the research, driving and interpreting.
And I’m very grateful to Natalia for translating the videos.
When I booked the eight trains spanning four days of travel from London to the formerly Polish ancestral village of my father (now lying within western Ukraine), I hadn’t realised that I’d be following the same route, more or less, that my father had driven us as a family in the late 1960s.
A wartime Polish exile, unable to visit his real homeland when it became part of the USSR, he would drive us to Poland as a second-best option. Back then it involved what my nervous mother referred to as ‘going behind the Iron Curtain’ that divided the West from the communist East. I remember hours standing next to the car at checkpoints as unsmiling DDR border guards pulled out the back seat and slid mirrors beneath the chassis. Long days were spent driving along the transit corridor through the forests of East Germany and Poland, where small crowds would gather whenever we stopped, and I had the job of handing out sweets and oranges to the wide-eyed children.
Some fifty years later I decided to travel east again, although this time it was possible to keep going into Ukraine, to the town closest to my dad’s village – the town of Ivano-Frankivsk, closed off by the Soviets until the early 1990s.
The lack of direct flights to western Ukraine gave a good excuse to do it by train. Ryanair’s forthcoming route to Lviv will win for speed and price, but a couple of hours strapped into a budget aircraft will hardly convey the same sense of travelling through central Europe to the east. And a train trip encourages some wonderfully atmospheric stopovers. Just don’t expect it to be restful.
Possibly overlooked by its more famous neighbour Avignon, the town of Orange in Provence offers considerable charm for a short stopover.
After the six hour journey on Eurostar from St Pancras, arriving into Avignon during the festival didn’t do much to alleviate the 39°C of baking heat. Another 20 minutes on a local train was worth it to simply step out onto empty pavements of Orange.
I’ve previously asked myself if it’s really necessary to traipse around all of the ‘must-sees’ when visiting a place, but the fact that everyone else was swarming in Avignon meant that the monuments of Orange were mercifully clear. And the town is sufficiently compact to visit most of them on a short stopover.
The Roman city of Arausio was a staging post on the Roman road between Lyon and Arles, and the legacy is clear in the modern town of Orange. The remarkable Arc de Triomphe stands at the ancient entrance to the city, commemorating the Roman Army’s victories over the barbarian tribes at the edges of the Empire. The detail in the friezes is impressive – look at the Celtic-style artwork depicted on the confiscated tribal armour.
Arc de Triomphe at the ancient entrance to Orange, Roman Arausio
Close up of the frieze depicting confiscated ‘barbarian’ armour
The Théâtre Antique is the best preserved Roman theatre in existence, and it’s still used for performances, as shown by the crew’s Airstream parked on the stage. Keep climbing up the tiers of seats for a view over the theatre with the tiled roofs of Orange as backdrop.
Roman theatre, Orange
The ancient Roman theatre viewed from the Colline st-Eutrope
But don’t stop there, as a walk up the Colline St-Eutrope extends the view even further, with a sweeping view across to Mont Ventoux on the horizon. A network of paths over the hill passes by ruins of the former castle of the Princes of Orange to a small play park with a couple of zip wires. All of this was almost deserted on a Saturday in July, which was unexpected but allowed some unobserved fun on the zip wires. The large open-air café was similarly deserted, with chairs and menus ready but no staff to be seen.
You could spend all day mooching around the sites of Orange, but for me it was enough to people watch in the tiny Place aux Herbes, with its laid back bar and a usefully muddled shop where the stock ranged from art supplies, Marseille soap, toothpaste and tins of WD40 – the kind of shop that simply could not survive back in England.
We stayed in the small and charming L’Herbier d’Orange in the Place aux Herbes. Orange has plenty of restaurants, but why sit in a place that looks like everywhere else when you can eat in a Roman cave with a fine wine cellar integrated at the far end? As the proprietors of La Cantina (Montée Julia Barthet) state, it’s not every day you can dine in a hole dug into the rock.
Escape the crowds and discover a secluded mountain lake
The triple waterfalls of Cascade d’Ars are deservedly well known, but it’s possible to make a longer round walk that takes in the étang de Guzet. Or, if you’ve already walked to the falls, a hike up to this beautiful hidden lake itself is well worth it, and it avoids the crowds that tend to stick to the falls.
I started from the car park in Aulus les Bains and walked a short way up the D8F towards the Col de Latrape. Ignore the left turn to the Cascade and soon afterwards you take a path up to the left, heading steeply up through the forest and crossing the forest track at one point.
Eventually you come out into the open Plateau de Souliou with a view of the cirque of Pic de Mont Rouge ahead (image 1 below). Look over to your right and you’ll see the lifts of the Guzet ski resort, as well as Pics de Cerda and Freychet (image 2).
Then continue to follow signs for the étang de Guzet, climbing up through the woods until you see a marked path down on the right to the lake shore. It’s a tranquil spot. Look out for the twin ‘claw’ summit of Pic de Crabe (image 3) reflected in the water.