Who Do You Belong To?

My Garden Gnome or my Alter Ego?

Is it you baby or just a brilliant disguise? Bruce Springsteen (1987)

On a recent trip to Paris on Eurostar I had an epiphany. I was travelling alone and the queues through customs were long and sometimes a little chaotic. As I moved through the various custom points, I was asked on three different occasions if I was with the family in front of me. I began to feel like a lost child with an adult saying to me “Who do you belong to?” I realised then that what people saw when they looked at me was a lady, getting on a bit in years, tagging along on a family holiday, and not the globe-trotting adventuress I really felt like. I was shocked to say the least. Of course, I understand I am no Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, I’m just ordinary, but I am an experienced solo traveller. So, I looked around in the departure lounge, searching for someone who looked like me: a lady around my age (74 next month) who appeared to be travelling alone. I could see no one. Unless of course, I was making the same assumption, that the older ladies reading their novels, tapping on their phones, or standing in the queue for coffee were attached to someone, either a partner or a family. There appeared to be many younger women travelling solo however, either with business like luggage and the obligatory laptop, or carrying enormous back packs they could hardly lift onto the x-ray conveyor belts. But where was I? Don’t women my age travel independently? Well of course they do, many of them on package holidays. But independently on trains, planes and buses, perhaps not so many, or do we just not see them?

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com


It may surprise you to learn that according to https://solotravelerworld.com/about/solo-travel-statistics-data/ 81% of women solo travellers are over the age of 55 years. 13% of women are between the ages of 35 – 44% with a tiny proportion of women aged 18-24 standing at 1%. 40% of solo travellers are boomers, with a high proportion of them being women.

Travelling Solo

So, it seems that the proportion of confident young women back packers are small in number, but in my head I imagine that’s what female solo travellers look like. I think for this reason travelling alone after 70, takes confidence. Perhaps that’s why fellow travellers look at me and wonder “Who do you belong to?” It’s not that I lack confidence to travel alone, I dont. What I lack sometimes is a sense of my own self. Sometimes I feel self conscious, like I should be with someone really. I don’t look like a carefree solo tourist, I feel a bit like an outlier, and that is what is sometimes noticeable to others. What if the ticket on my phone app doesnt work. What if I’ve forgotten something vital like my phone or my passport, even though I’ve checked them a hundred times. What if I get on the wrong train? No, I’ve done this too many times to worry about that, but nevertheless, this is what people occasionally see etched on my face, not lack of confidence but the sheer dread of doing something totally embarrassing.

Make embarrassing moments the wonderful stories they are

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Pexels.com

The joy of travelling solo is that if you make a mistake, who knows? Only you know and you won’t make the same mistake again. This is how you gain your confidence. You know the saying what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? This is the joy of travelling solo, especially if you are over a certain age. Your family and friends are not around to witness your faux pas. Bear in mind I’m not talking about you stepping off a cliff or wandering off into the wilderness, never to be seen again. I mean the kind of mistakes you might laugh about if you were not on your own. This is what we need to get over as older solo travellers. Train yourself to be more philosophical. We all get confused and make mistakes. I did when I was 25 and I still do at nigh on 74.

Fear of getting on the wrong train is a typical example and surprisingly, one that stops many women from getting a senior rail card and hopping on the first available train to somewhere exciting. I once sat opposite an elderly woman on a train going to London. She looked at me sheepishly and said “I’ve just missed my stop, can you tell me what the next station stop is please”. I told her Nuneaton. Concerned I said, Can I help you? Is there something I can do? She smiled and said “No, I’ll just get off, have a look around and make my way back. I’ve never been to Nuneaton before” she said almost as an afterthought. The lady was clearly embarrassed, but she shrugged and told me that at 80 years old she should expect to do such things. She also said that she missed her motor bike. Her son had demanded she stop riding it on her last birthday. “I went everywhere on it.” she said, and it turned out that every year until recently, she’d ridden the bike to Scotland for a two-week camping holiday. “I never took any clothes except what I was wearing and one change. I bought new knickers at every town I visited and threw the worn ones away.” She paused and smiling said, “every year, Scotland had a pair of my knickers in all the litter bins along my route”.  

Photo by Tanishq Dhiman on Pexels.com

I remembered this inspirational lady when I boarded the wrong train in Paris and ended up 80 kilometres away from my destination in Nevers, a beautiful town, but with fully booked hotels and no more trains running that evening. The lady on the train had turned her misadventure into an adventure. I did the same, I shrugged, and hailed a taxi. Shocked at the distance I wanted to travel the driver eagerly accepted my 200 euros, and I sat back and enjoyed the scenery I’d inadvertently paid a lot of money for. Worse case senario? I would have thrown myself on the mercy of the local police. After all they can see I am a little old lady. Who would know anyway? The point is that if you keep yourself safe and confident, and you are covered financially for any emergencies you are never really lost, just a bit mislaid.

Staying Safe

  • Google your destination before you travel (Walk through the streets on Google earth)
  • Don’t travel solo is you are not fit and well
  • Your mobile phone is your best friend. Dont run out of battery. Carry a portable charger
  • Stay calm and always double check you are getting on the right train or bus
  • Keep your passport safe. Know where it is all the time
  • Keep different forms of money in separate places, especially credit cards and emergency funds
  • Use a city safe bag https://pacsafe.co.uk/collections/citysafe-cx
  • Don’t arrive anywhere unfamiliar after dark unless you are being met by a taxi or a person you know.
  • Keep a list of emergency numbers
  • Stay in touch with family and friends
  • Be aware of scams (read up on them before your journey)
  • Have good travel Insurance 

In summary

Be confident. Visit the places on your bucket list. Indulge the person your are on the inside. If you have no one to travel with, do your research and travel by yourself. Who do you belong to? You belong to yourself. Enjoy the freedom of being inside your own skin. If you mess up, as long as you are safe, who will know? Turn the misadventures into adventures. Enjoy your sunshine years, You don’t have to be Kate Adie. Be Dora the Explorer instead. and set your adventurous spirit free.

If you are an old dame who regularly travels solo leave some tips for newbie solo travellers in the responses. If you are not confident about travelling alone, but really want to see more of the world, let us know. You are not on your own.

It’s Time To Get Back On The Road Again

It’s February 2022 and its been a long lonely road, as they say. Covid-19 has sent our world reeling. For me, the last two years has provided an opportunity to return, for a while, to my profession as a lecturer working online at a local university. Three vaccines later and a lot of time sitting in a virtual classroom, I am again ready to view the world in my own old dame way and I hope you will take the time to join me on my travels both at home and away: old dame or not. There will be tips about travelling alone, as an old dame, and travel destinations as a grandma, health and wellness, history and archetecture and budget travel (my favourite). So there’s lots to talk about. 

Clock seen from the inside of Orly Museum Paris (2021)

There’s no time like the ambiguous present

Shirley Just Writes. Sounds simple, but, anyone who just writes will tell you its not that easy, especially in these strange times. Many of us feel we are living in limbo, waiting for life to return to normal. I know I am. Even when they tell us it’s safe to go about our business, we only half believe them. There are many people who are still reluctant to leave the house, even to visit the local supermarket. The world has become a shrunken and alien place. But recently I read a book by Dr Pauline Boss, (2021) and she has completely turned my world around. The book primarily focuses on the losses endured during the pandemic: not just the human losses but the ambiguous losses that we have all grieved, such as loss of freedom during lockdowns, loss of employment, family gatherings, birthday celebrations, loss of normality and control, and cruelest of all losses, of the right to say goodbye to loved ones who died from Covid-19.

There have been many heroic deeds over the past two years by doctors, nurses and ordinarily citizens doing extraordinary things in the face of adversity. But we also endure divisions as well as communal acts of kindness. I have grieved the loss of the freedom to visit my home in France when ever I chose. The double whammy of Brexit and travel restrictions plunged me into despair. I have felt my loss desperately, but it would be wrong to expect empathy from people who don’t own property in Europe. Why would they worry about this? I still have my health and anyway they have their own losses to deal with. But its divisive nevertheless, it sets us apart in our grief. Dr Boss’s words taught me that whilst the context of Covid-19 is different for lots of us. feelings of ambiguous loss are universally felt. My loss of control and freedom to roam around made me upset, confused and isolated even within my own family and friendship circles. To my dismay, my advancing years were called out during the pandemic too. I became someone who should be shielded, kept safe from the outside world. I lost the person I was before.

The pandemic has dealt us all a deadly blow, to our mental and physical health, to our economy and to our personal freedoms.  There is no closure. We can’t say goodbye, good riddance. So we go forward carrying our losses into a new normal. For me 2022 will be the year when I accept that things are not likely to change in the foreseeable future and that whilst we all deal with the pandemic in our own unique ways, we are indeed all in it together. So I will rise to the occasion and in this I know I will not be alone. There is still a world to explore out there and it isn’t  waiting for the pandemic to end and neither should we. There are journeys to be had, be it in the safety of our back yards, within our communities, out in the wider world; or even, just in our heads. 

Birmingham Art Gallery England

Before the Covid-19 virus stopped us dead in our tracks, I took a trip to Birmingham Art Gallery. I grew up in Birmingham and have visited the museum many times. But on this occasion, I took my time and really studied the Pre-Raphaelite art exhibition. I’d learned a bit about this subject whilst at university. So as I sat there gazing at the Rossetti painting, Proserpina, I realised I’d only travelled a short distance, some twenty odd miles, and here I was, in the ghostly presence of a famous artist. This was the real thing. Not a photo in a book. I could see Rossetti’s brush strokes, every detail of the woman’s robe. I was no longer in Birmingham, I’d travelled back to the 19th century and I wondered about this sad looking woman in the painting. 

Proserpina by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: 1874 (Birmingham)

In Greek mythology, Proserpina was the wife of Hades, the God of the Underworld. In Rossetti’s painting we see more than his image of the Greek Goddess, we meet a woman trapped in the contemporary world of the 19th century. This Proserpina has no Goddess like powers, she exists through Rossetti’s pre-Raphaelite gaze only. Her shock of flaming red hair dominates the painting: red for temptress, red for seduction. She holds a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility and yet judging by the position of her right hand, it seems that this symbol of womanhood is a heavy burden. Is this because Proserpina is trapped within a century that allows women no freedoms, no rights, no voice, not even the right to keep her own children should her husband divorce her? The trails of ivy symbolize her entrapment. Her rather sullen looking expression speaks volumes. Her fate is sealed, as much in 19th century as it was in Greek mythology. Isn’t [time] travel wonderful?

P.Boss (2021) The Myth of Closure, London, Blackstone Publishing

How to Have Fun In the French Pyrenees

French Alps 2013

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the lives of millions of people across the world, with many taking to the outdoor life, not just for the fresh air but as a life-line in these troubling times.  Walking, hill climbing and treking across suddenly discovered open spaces has become enormously popular. So, as travel restrictions begin to ease and yearnings grow for outdoor fun outdoors, let me  wet your appetite: The Pyreenes awaits.  This mountain range divides France and Spain and offers something for walkers of all abilities: short hikes on the gentle slopes or extreme challenges across miles rugged landscapes.

In France the mountains are known as Les Pyrénées, in Spain the Pirineos. The range extends over 491 kilometres and on the French side covers six departments:  Pyrénée-Orientals, Aude, Ariege Haut-Garonne, Haute Pyrenees and PyreneesAtlantique. The mountains are vast, extending from the Mediterranean Sea at Cap Crues, to the east across to the Bay of Biscay at cap Higeur. The western ranges of the mountains tend to get more snow than the east. So, if its skiing that takes your fancy, west is best. However, back-packing in these mountains is a real adventure. There are beautiful colls (mountain roads) to discover and green sloping ranges to explore. To the west is the exciting Pyrenees Atlantique. To the east the Pyrénée-Orientals. In the mid-Pyrenees the terrain is rocky and uncompromising. For trekkers, the region is challenging and spectacular. It offers varied cultures and is physically breathtaking. Some of the mountain peaks rise to over 3,000 metres. Rivers, streams, forests and wildlife abound. Back-packers trekking across the entire range of the French Pyrenees can begin their journey from the chic resort of Biarritz in the west and finish in the pretty French sea-side resort of Banyols sur Mer on the Mediterranean. If you are looking for lively places to relax and have fun, visit the Adventure Rooms in Toulouse, where you can play a live escape game, or, paint balling in Millau. And for something inspirational, the Pyrenees has 126 awesome nature parks.

Getting There:

Flights: Flights from London to the Pyrenees generally start at around £70 for a single journey, depending on times and destinations. They can be reached by a number of airports. For example, flights with Skyscanner, from London to Pau is a good choice.  There are also flights  to Lourdes, in the Haute Pyrenees .  For the most economical route London to Toulouse is a good choice too.  The town of Foix is easily accessible from Toulouse and is a favourite destination for all types of holiday makers. To venture higher into the mountains, trains are available from main railway stations. Air travel takes a little over an hour to most of the French Pyrenees. The town of Foix is easily accessible from Toulouse airport and is a popular destination for back-packers choosing to fly as it is the nearest and the most economical way to begin exploring this beautiful mountain range.


Travelling by bus can be fun because you get to see the countryside and it’s economical too. For back-packers, there is plenty of hostels en-route. Buses leaving Victoria station London, offer inexpensive bus travel to most major cities in southern France from where you can access trains to various locations in the Pyrenees.


There are lots of train routes available from Paris to the Pyrenees. It really depends on where you would like to start your holiday.

  • Trains to Pau on the West Pyrenees. The fast TVG train  takes 5 hours 36 minutes. SNCF trains take 10 hours 14 minutes.  The night train and takes 10 hours.
  • Trains to Perpignan in the eastern Pyrenees. The fast TVG  takes 5 hours 3 minutes. SNCF d takes 9 hours 26 minutes. The night train takes 9 hours 23 minutes. .

An example of a journey by train from London to Toulouse:

  • St Pancras Station London. Eurostar (Tickets start from £110 single journey, but can be significantly higher is not booked well in advance)
  • London — Paris Gare du Nord (change)
  • Gare de Lyon Paris (change)
  • Montpellier – Gare de Saint Roch (change)
  • Toulouse – Gare de Matabrau.

From Toulouse take the train to Foix.

Important tips for back-packing in the Pyrenees

Back-packing in the mountains is an adventure but you need to be fit as trekking is strenuous if you are laden down with back-packs. You need to decide whether you will camp or stay in manned-unmanned huts along the way. The weather conditions in the Pyrenees can vary from very hot to blizzard conditions. To walk the entire length of the mountain range can take up to five or six weeks, maybe longer depending on the weather. You need to avoid trekking after dark as it can get very dangerous if the mists come down. You need a good map/guide to show you where the national parks are and where mountain huts can be located. It is very useful to prepare for this trip. Many trekkers have had to abandon belongings that became too heavy to carry.


Camping in season – There are few restrictions on camping wild in the Pyrenees and it is a favourite for many back-packers. In the National parks, camping is not allowed within one hour’s walk of access points to the park. You are only allowed to stay one night in one place between the hours of 7.pm and 9.am. There are also camp sites quite close to the access points to the national parks. You have to use common sense when camping wild. Matches need to be used with caution and litter needs to be taken way with you when you leave.

Refuge huts: And there are many

  • Manned refuges. To find these huts the symbol on the map is a black hut with a door. Accommodation prices usually start at around 12-15 Euros. There are shared rooms and dormitories. You need your own sleeping bag and you have to pay for food. However, you can take your own food and in some huts you can cook it too. There are toilets and a cold water supply. At the height of season it is better to book in advance. Reviews for some of the French manned huts are mixed. It seems to depend on where you stay. Most reviews found the accommodation basic and okay for one night: some managers at these huts are very welcoming, some are a little off-hand.
  • Unmanned refuges. Sometimes called Bothies, the symbol on the map is a black hut without a door. The accommodation is free but it is expected that you will donate at least 5 Euros for the upkeep of the refuge. The huts are maintained by the walkers who use them. Mattresses are available but you need your own sleeping bag. There are no toilet facilities but the huts do have a supply of drinking water. They are good places to stay if the weather turns bad and you need more adequate shelter than a tent.
  • Shepherds’ huts. These are used as emergency shelter. The symbol on the map is the outline of a hut. You will not be turned away in an emergency but you can’t stay there otherwise.
  • Hostels. There are many hostels to choose from in the mountains, particularly in Midi-Pyrenees. Cadovin Perigord Youth Hostel has good reviews and is in a good location for trekking.  The hostel is modern and has good quality facilities.  Linen and breakfast is provided and there is a private shower and toilet. This hostel is okay for those who like it relatively quiet. It does not have a youth hostel “feel” to it and there are not many over-night travellers. The Residence les Marquis is a popular hostel for backpackers albeit quite pricey, but  this is  an ideal location in the Haute Pyrenees. The hostel is surrounded by forests and of course the mountains. Reviewers liked this place but said the accommodation is a fully furnished apartment that does not provide bed linen or sleeping bags. The facilities are basic but good value. This hostel is not very lively so be prepared for quiet evenings gazing at the stars. Luz Saint Sauveur Youth Hostel is a lively place to stay, particularly if you don’t want to spend your whole holiday trekking in the mountains. You need to take your own sleeping bag and you can see online exactly what you have to pay for extra, by way of meals, linen and other facilities.  There is a large common room which gets rather noisy and a swimming pool. There are lots of activities on offer which include tennis, rafting, cycling, horse riding and hiking.

Getting around:  

Walking/trekking – There are many economical ways of getting around on the Pyrenees. Of course the very best way to see this spectacular mountain range is on foot. It is said to be one of the last “great wildernesses” to found in Europe. Indeed whilst the landscape is diverse, inspirational and fascinating it should also be treated with great respect. The terrain in some areas is rugged and merciless, particularly in extreme weather conditions. However, there are many walking routes which can take you over winding colls (mountain roads) and across undulating pastures. The area of Barges is said to one of the most beautiful areas to walk in. It teems with wildlife of all descriptions, birds, butterflies and even the occasional wandering goat. Also there are bears in the Pyrenees but they are rarely seen.

The popular back-packing trek is the GR10 which is a route which runs the entire length of the Pyrenees. Walkers usually start from the Atlantic cost in Hendaye to Banyuls sur Mer on the Mediterranean coast. This walk usually takes around 50 to 60 days including resting periods. The French IGN publishers guide maps for the whole of the region. The attraction of this particular is its diversity in landscape and even culture. The middle of the Pyrenees is rocky and austere. The Mediterranean side is dry and hot. The Atlantic side can be wet and can be cold at times.


  • The best time to walk this route is June or the end of October when the weather is mild. Be aware of extreme temperatures in the mountains. Walkers who get into trouble on the mountains usually do so because of the heat or the cold. It can also be wet which can make walking a little unpleasant.
  • Do not carry too much equipment. Remember there are plenty of hostels, manned and unmanned accommodation and camping places. Travel light. You will survive this memorable walk in much better condition than if you are loaded down with equipment.
  • Trains/buses – Transport in some areas of the Pyrenees is subsidised by the French government. In Langudoc, for example, regional trains and bus services costs as little as one Euro. There are bus services from Lourdes to Luz and there are local bus routes from town to town and village to village, although you do have to check their timetables. Trains from Pau take passengers to Oloron Sainte Marie, which is a beautiful scenic journey that takes around 35 minutes. Fares start from around 10 Euros, depending on your destination. There is a bus service from Oloron to the Aspe Valley.


Like most other regions in France, local produce is used whenever possible. This makes travelling around France a delight when it comes to eating and drinking, even on a budget. To give you a flavour of the delights which await the hungry traveller, there are local walnuts, truffles, wild mushrooms that turn up in many local dishes, locally farmed soups and terrains, garlic, oils and chestnuts. In Gascony specialities include are goose, duck and pate. In the Haute –Pyrenees region the pot-roast is queen of the table alongside lambs liver, goats, hares, beef fish and cheese. Local wines and rough ciders are served with many meals. The best places to eat are farmhouse inns, local bistros and small family run restaurants and creperies. Rochefort (Western Pyrenees)La Crepliere SARL at Rue Jean Jaures in Rochefort, near the city centre. This very French Creperie oozes charm. It has some excellent reviews. Foix (Midi Pyrenees) La Vertigo has some very good reviews as a good value place to eat.  However, some of the menu may not suit English tastes, but it’s well worth experimenting with the local dishes. Cassolette is a popular dish and very filling if you are on a trekking expedition. There are delicacies such as pig’s ears and duck foise gras. Finishing time for serving is 9.30pm. Banyuls sur Mer – Domaine Pic Joan. This is a quiet restaurant next to the Solhotel which overlooks the Mediterranean. The food is excellent and has many good reviews. The speciality is sea food What is particularly good about this restaurant is that it serves and sells its own wine: Pic Joan. The wine is very full-bodied so cautious consumption should be exercised.  Served with the fish dishes it is superb. Banyuls is situated at the base of the Coll de Banyuls and is a favoured final destination for back-packers finishing the GK10 route. Be aware that in summer months, Banyuls is a popular seaside resort and gets very overcrowded with tourists so it may be difficult to find accommodation unless you have booked in advance.


There is plenty of life-life for young people looking to blow off steam, particularly if the day has been spent in quiet solitude on mountain passes. Be prepared to travel into the nearest towns though. There are lots of comedy clubs to be found in Pyrenees towns. The Theatre des Noveautes (theatre of Novelties) is located in Tarbes at 44 Rue Larrey, 65000.  This theatre has comfortable seating and sometimes the shows are in English, so it is worth checking out. Piano Bars are a great way to unwind. Le Dubliners on 7 Avenue Alexandre Marqui 65100 in Lourdes has some excellent reviews. The venue is small, but very friendly with a good atmosphere. Nightclubs can be found in most of the towns. La Purple is a Multi-space disco at 2 Rue Castellane Toulouse. Its publicity says the club is glamorous and sophisticated. It is certainly loud and lively and is considered to the place to be in Toulouse. The decor is the colour purple. Drinks are quite expensive as in most night clubs in the Pyrenees. Be prepared to wait in long lines to get into this venue. Once a very trendy place, La Caveau is still quite popular with the local youth.  Located on 4 Rue Gambetta Biarritz, 64200, the club has begun to get some poor reviews with complaints about the rude behaviour of bouncers and the tired decor. Le Duplex at 24 Avenue Edouard V11 Biarritz has some great reviews. Doors open at 23.00hrs and close at 06.00hrs. The dance club is comfortable with nice decor. In the downstairs room “Le Pulp” the music is house-electro. Upstairs caters for the over 25s and includes rock music and electro-house. There is a dress code as with other evening venues in Biarritz, Tarbes, Lourdes and Toulouse.

Places to visit: 

Lac de Gaube – When back-packing though the Pyrenees, especially if you are traversing the whole range, it is difficult to find places to visit that are every bit as inspirational as that which you are already experiencing. However, there are some places that are well worth taking a look at. Lac de Guabe is one of the most scenic locations on the mountain range. Located in the Haute-Pyrenees it has spectacular visas. Crashing waterfalls cascade down through mountain gorges, spectacular arched bridges stretch over perilously steep mountain sides. It is not hard to understand why visitors to the region have posted their breathtaking photographs on the internet.  To access the lake start at Cauterets and head for the Pont d’ Espagne (The Bridge of Spain). From here you can take the cable car, which will take you to the Clot Plateau. Continue your journey to the lake by chair life.  Lac de Gaube has the most dramatic scenery. The majestic Pyrenees Mountains soar above the lake providing a breathtaking backdrop to the lake which, on a clear day reflects the mountains in its icy blue water.  Lac de Guabe was a fashionable spa in the 19th century. To the left of the lake is a hotellerie which serves refreshments during the summer season.

Lake Oô  –  Back-packers in the vicinity of Bagnères-de-Luchon should take time out to do this walk. It is very popular with visitors. The walk from Bagnères-de-Luchon to the lake takes about an hour. The waterfall which feeds into the lake is totally stunning. As you climb, the walk does get a little harder but it is certainly not strenuous. The first trek takes you from Louchon to the Col de Peyresoude and on to the barns Astau. This part is relatively easy. At the barns you can stop to eat at the restaurant and then continue to Lake Oô.  The signs to the lake are easy to locate and to follow. You will want to stop and take photographs and generally take in the spectacular views. The climb is not strenuous and can be done without too much effort, so take your time and enjoy the magnificent scenery.  The lake itself was once natural but has been extended by a massive dam which services the needs of around 26,000 people so it is now mostly man-made. There is a refuge close by the dam. The dam was completed in 1921. The trail to Lake Oô can get very crowded in the summer months, which is a measure of how moderate the climb is. Once at the lake, visitors are rewarded with the most spectacular view of the waterfall which cascades down the mountain side from 300 metres high. The waterfall has become a famous landmark and after heavy rain the waterfall is joined by dozens of others, quite literally bursting out of the walls of the mountains to crash into the lake.  The attraction is on the GR10 route so for those back-packers walking this route, Lake Oô is a nice simple excursion that affords spectacular returns for the time-out from walking expeditions across the Pyrenees.



Cirque de Gavarnie – Many people visit the Pyrenees and never get to see this magnificent natural phenomenon. The cirque is extraordinary limestone circles which were formed by huge prehistoric glaciers. The most famous of these cirques are to be found in the Hautes-Pyrenees in the commune of Gavarnie. The most magnificent feature of the cirque is the Gavarnie Falls which has a 413 metre vertical drop. The cirque stands 1,700 metres high and is 14 kilometres in circumference. To explain this attraction better, imagine gigantic stone terraces in perfect circles surrounding some of the world’s most famous landmarks such as Mont Perdu and Le Brèche de Roland (Breach of Roland). To access the cirque you need to go to Gavarnie, which is in front of the wall of the cirque. The walk to the base of the cirque takes about 2 hours from Gavarnie. The challenge then is to climb to the Brèche de Roland which is a natural gap between two cirque walls. The gap is 40 metres across and 100 metres high. It has an elevation of 2804 metres. The Breach of Roland is on the border of France and Spain and legend has it that the gap was made by the sword of Roland de Roncevaux, a medieval knight. The sword was given to him by King Charles 1, later Charlemagne to defend the Franks from the Bretons. The area is steeped in history and the parish church in the village of Gavarnie is a UNESCO world heritage site

So 2020 here we come. Get planning for some fun in the Pyrennes.


The Next Time You See Paris: Cultural Glances around the Latin Quarter

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Most people have seen Paris. Its iconic buildings and monuments appear in movies, in the news, and even in video games. When we visit, we rush around taking photos of whatever we recognise, whatever we think is iconic or famous: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Moulin Rouge. The list is endless. But do we really come away knowing anything more about these attractions, other than they attract tourists? Travel broadens the mind they say and it does, especially when it comes to exploring familiar places in different ways and new places in unexpected ways. Hence the birth of this blog. The next time you see Paris, pause for a while, behind your cultural glances lie vibrant histories and surprising facts that make you want to visit this romantic city again, just to have another look.

The Fountain of St Michel: the left bank

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This iconic fountain at St Michel has been photographed thousands of times by tourists, but you may not have even noticed it. So pause awhile before you hurry off across the bridge to photograph the now crippled Notre Dame. Have you never noticed that the fountain is built against the end of a row of buildings?  We normally expect to see fountains in the middle of a square, especially one as majestic as this one. What makes it so interesting is that you kind of come upon it quite unexpectedly. No matter how often I visit this part of town,  I always get a thrill of surprise when I turn the corner and see it. Built between 1858 and 1860 by the architect Gabriel Davioud, the center piece sculpture is that of the Archangel Michael wrestling with the devil. Now it might just be me, but our Micheal looks none too happy even though he seems to be winning his battle. Perhaps, like me, he is upset by the recent graffiti daubed on this magnificent piece of art, or maybe he’s just unhappy at being placed against a wall instead of being center stage. If so, he needed to take this up with the city prefet who commissioned the construction of the fountain to hide the ugly bare wall on the corner of Boulevard Saint Michel and Saint – Andre des Arts.  The fountain  depicts the prone figure of the devil lying defeated on a rock beneath the archangel’s feet. The city hated it.  They didn’t like the different coloured stone for sure, nor did they like the variety of statues adorning this unusual edifice: too many statues by too many sculptors. I can imagine the outcry. “A blot on the landscape!” they would have cried. How many times have we heard that when a new sculpture or building is unveiled?

Today though the young intellectuals and artists of Paris love the fountain and so do the mime artists who ply their trade in front of the inscrutable blue green dragons that sit at the base of the fountain.  It is a regular meeting place for students studying at Sorbonne University, and the artists who sell their drawings across the road on the riverside. So if you want to look really French linger a while.

The Left Bank

The Left Bank is choc full of cultural experiences. Here you will find the Latin Quarter, which got its name because in earlier times the students and teachers at the famous Sorbonne University spoke only Latin. Today all languages can be heard on the streets and boulevards which were once the stamping grounds of writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scot Fitzgerald and Picasso who rocked up to drink at the Cafe Deux Magots on Boulevard Saint-Germain-des Prés, and dance the night away at the many jazz clubs tucked away in cobbled alleyways.

The next time you visit the Latin Quarter, pause for a moment at the many river-side book stalls.  Don’t hurry past just because you already have a miniature Eiffel tower or a set of tea towels that say I heart Paris.  Look at the glorious array of old books and magazines. These book stalls, known as Les bouquinistes de Paris have a long historical and literary heritage.  On the left and the right bank, there are over 226 riverside book stalls. This means that there are somewhere in the region of 300,000 books for customers to browse through. You might even find something quite unique: a first edition maybe.  If not, there is always Shakespeare and Company.

Shakespeare and Company


This little book shop is probably the most famous book shop in the world. Hiding out at 37 Rue de la Bucherie, across the river from the Notre Dame, this little gem of a shop has a history so great it defies its cluttered book-lined nooks and crannies. The book shop bearing this name started out in 1919 in Rue Deuytren but moved to Rue de l’Odean in the 6th Arrondissement in 1922. Owned by Silvia Beach, an American expat, it was not long before it became the hub of Anglo-American culture. Silvia  took impoverished writers under her wing, turning her bookshop into a lending library and publishing house.  In the 1920’s the tiny establishment throbbed with the pathos and passion of young writers searching for inspiration. The shop was closed in 1941 during the German occupation. It never opened its doors again. It is said that it was closed by the Nazi’s because Silvia refused  to sell the last copy of Finnigan’s Wake by James Joyce, to a German officer.

George Whitman and Shakespeare and Company

In 1962, shortly before her death Silvia bequeathed the name of her store to George Whitman who in 1951 had opened an English Language book shop at Rue de la Bucherie. In 1962 it became Shakespeare and Company. Like Silvia’s original store, it attracted the likes of writers such as Henry Millar and William Burroughs and soon became the center of literary Paris. But Whitman created something rather unique. When you next browse through the books at Shakespeare and Company, you might well rub shoulders with a few Tumbleweeders. Whitman has allowed passing travellers and would be writers to live in the shop on the proviso that they make their beds first thing in the morning, read one book a day and help out in the shop. Whitman named his guests Tumbleweeders, because they blew in from nowhere, and there have been over 30,000 of them over the years: beds squashed in between the book shelves, eager minds only too willing to learn from their benefactor. Hanging on the wall among the jumble of shelves hangs a sign. It says “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”. Whitman died at 98 years old in 2011. His daughter Silvia (named after Beach) now runs the store, keeping her father’s traditions and values. If you are a fan of Woody Allen films, watch Midnight in Paris for a glimpse of Gil as he wanders out of the shop towards the river.

Rue La Huchette


This is one of the oldest streets in Paris. Hemmed in between Place St Michel and Shakespeare and Company, the street oozes charm. It’s many tourist shops and Greek restaurants make Rue La Huchette a must when you next see Paris. Not long ago I sat in one of the small chaotic restaurants taking in the ambiance and eating a huge kebab. I later learned that some food aficionados call this street bacteria alley. Oh well, I survived and would eat there again. In 1942 the inhabitants of the street were made famous when  Elliott Paul wrote his book The Last Time I saw Paris. Adding to this cultural heritage, No 5 Rue Le Huchette is one of Paris’s most famous Jazz clubs. Le Caveau de la Huchette is a 16th century building. The jazz club is situated below ground in a surprising spacious cave. In fact the Cavern Club in Liverpool drew its inspiration from this Paris jazz club. Count Basie played there in the great era of swing. And if you enjoy all things swing then for a 13 euros cover fee you can join the party.

Luxembourg Gardens


This beautiful park borders on the edge of the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des Prés. It was created at the request of Queen Marie de Medici in 1612 and draws thousands of visitors each year. The gardens cover 25 hectars. Hemmingway said of it in his book A Moveable Feast, “In winter the trees were beautiful without their leaves when you were reconciled to them”. In summer the gardens attract tourists and locals alike. Beneath every shady tree someone is sitting, lost in the pages of a book. Children race around the lake chasing tiny sailboats with long poles. Couples walk arm in arm pausing to look at the many statues along the gravel paths. Young girls smile coquettishly at young men who saunter past enjoying the attention. In fact, so romantic is the park that Victor Hugo featured it in his book Les Miserables. It’s where Marius and Cosette meet for the first time.

So remember when you next see Paris, every cultural glance back in time brings you closer to its heart.

Grandma Grey Bla Bla’s to Benidorm

Grandma Grey at  Poniente Beach

The photograph is rather good, a bit grainy, but good. The t-shirt I bought in Paris after being released from the police station looks very posh, except the baby I’m holding is hiding the lovely sequined logo.  I’m sitting at a table on the Av de la Armada Espanola, squinting at an English newspaper and wondering how on earth I’d managed to end up in Benidorm.  A young woman with three kids in tow heaves a fully loaded Tesco’s bag for life, down onto the beach. I’m trying to ignore the little flashing light on my phone. That’s my son John in there. If I open those messages, it’ll be like opening Pandora’s box, all the evils of the world will spill out and overwhelm me, especially as I’m supposed to be in Morocco, not sitting here on Poniente Beach with no money, no clothes and no place to stay.

It all happened at once really and I still can’t get my head round it. While I was waiting to pay my fine (see previous blog) l got this thing come up on my phone saying I could go to Morocco by bus. Well, that sounded delightful. The nearest I’d ever got to Morocco was watching Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, and I don’t suppose that was really Morocco, more like Warner Brothers Studios. Anyhow, there I was considering my best options when a message comes up from John. “Where are you!” he wants to know. “Can you find your way to Eurostar!”  He’s not asking he’s demanding, I can tell because he’s using exclamation marks instead of question marks. He gets that from his dad. He thinks I’m still in Paris. So I texted him back saying, “Here’s looking at you kid”, and pressed send. I don’t suppose he’s ever seen Casablanca.

It all went swimmingly at first. I decided not to go directly to Morocco. 30 hours on the bus is a long time, so I decided to do it in stages. I’d go to Barcelona on a Quibus first and then to Valencia on an Alsar bus. It’s all there on the internet. You can surf all round the world. I wish my friend Vera was alive we could have done this together – the pensioner’s version of Thelma and Louise eh? Anyhow, from Valencia it seems you can take a ferry to Tanger-Med in Morocco. Fancy that! I decided to consider this on the way to Barcelona. Except it all went terribly wrong.  I got to Barcelona no trouble, even got time to visit the Museu Picasso, I’d always wanted to go there, but my now poor dead husband just said “don’t be daft, why’d you want to go there for!” (Note the exclamation mark). So that was the end of that.

Grandma Grey Goes Bla Bla

Anyway, I got on a bus headed for Valencia from Santes coach station in Barcelona after booking a hotel online, I settled back and enjoyed the ride. Valencia’s a huge place and for the first time since I started surfing I felt a bit vulnerable being on my own, but then I got talking to this elderly couple in my hotel who were heading for Benidorm. They said they were going by Bla Bla Car, and would I like to join them? Well, I have to say I was a bit dubious, but they explained it was a car share and there was spare seat. Well I googled it of course. “Share a Car with Bla Bla”. It seemed legitimate and I liked the idea of a car called Bla Bla. Since it was on the way to Morocco I said yes. I was unaware, as was Tony our driver, that the couple would sing Agadoo all the way to Benidorm. Tony kicked us all out in Benidorm Old Town just after they started singing YMCA. I managed to ditch them at Poniente Beach telling them I had a friend in one of the hotels.

How did I end up on the front page of the Daily Gazette holding a baby? Well that part was easy. I am Grandma Grey after all! It was like falling off a log.  I was sitting on a low wall gazing over at Benidorm Island considering my next move when I happened to see a young woman with a baby in her arms. She was struggling to get something out of her shopping bag. She looked at me a bit helpless like, so I offered to hold the baby. To my astonishment, she turned on her heels and ran off leaving me with the baby! Well, I was mad! I went after her. She was so surprised, she stumbled. She fell to the ground so I sat on her. The baby was still swinging from my hip. When John was a baby he was such a miserable little thing I took to carrying him around when I did the housework so I’m an expert at such things. It was then I noticed that someone had nicked my handbag and trolley case which I’d abandoned chasing after the women who was now gasping for air. I’m a bit on the big side.

Grandma Grey’s Photo Opportunity

Once again I found myself in a foreign police station, this time trying to explain why I’d attacked a complete stranger in the street.  The upshot was this. It’s a baby scam to distract tourists while they are being robbed. With the woman in custody (who knows if it’s her baby) the police think they will be able track down her accomplices and my belongings. Some local reporter was in the police station, took a photo of me holding the baby and hey presto! I’m on the front page of the Daily Gazette:  “Grandma Grey foils baby scamming ring“.  I’m waiting now for the police to find me somewhere to stay till I get my stuff back.

I open my messages, all of them from John. I will reply later. I’ve just picked up a leaflet in the cafe here. Morocco can wait. It seems there’s a place called Mini Hollywood in Almeria where they filmed all the spaghetti movies like A Fist Full of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven.  I quite fancy playing cowboys and Indians!