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Hotel

sunny 14 °C
View Forres on IainT's travel map.

Knockomie

Knockomie

I have have been to a hotel. Can you imagine?

On Friday afternoon I decided enough was enough, and I had to get away from home. It was just for one night (Saturday) but then it was all very last minute.

The hotel is in Forres, which is 3 hours drive north. It is also where my father was from, so my memories of the place go back as far as I do. Grandmother. Uncle and aunt. Cousins. Summer holidays. Easter visits.

Findhorn Village

Findhorn Village

I have been driving past that hotel as long as it has been there (33 years), and never gone in. To be honest, I never saw it as my kind of place. Full of old people. Old people who think they are a bit posh because they can afford it.

I suppose I am one of them now, but without the posh bit. And the money obviously - a cheap last minute deal.

I enjoyed the drive to get there - the pure novelty of driving for 3 hours after weeks of living under restrictions.

I was perfectly happy with the hotel’s hygiene arrangements. My room was pleasant and quiet. I slept well. They provided an excellent dinner and breakfast.

Aside from the sheer liberation of the escape and staying somewhere which is away from home, I can pick out several highlights. First, an afternoon walk beside the River Findhorn. No sound except the roar of the water.

River Findhorn at Logie

River Findhorn at Logie

Next, an evening walk in Findhorn village. It had a real “end of summer” feel. The village was its usual mixture of busy but quiet, locals and visitors. I chose to go at that time hoping for a typical Findhorn sunset. I chose well.

Findhorn Sunset

Findhorn Sunset

Then my Couch to 5k session at 6am on Sunday. Session 17. I went to the town’s Grant Park, where my father played cricket as a youngster. His old school - Forres Academy - is across the street.

Grant Park, Forres

Grant Park, Forres

Finally, a Sunday morning 3 hour hike in Culbin Forest. For the first 2 hours of my hike I saw no-one. I had geese, butterflies and a seal for company.

Culbin Shore

Culbin Shore

The Forest is fascinating. It was planted to fix the sand dunes now beneath it, to stop them moving. Some are over 20m high. I loved being able to walk in solitude for 2 hours, surrounded by trees, with no noise apart from the geese, the sea occasionally, and my footsteps.

Culbin Forest

Culbin Forest

I wonder if the geese are resident or migrating.

Posted by IainT 23:13 Archived in Scotland Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches skylines trees sky boats scotland life transport Comments (0)

1972 (Part 2)

sunny 21 °C

Le Filochard

Le Filochard

My 9 months working in Toulouse during 1972-73 changed me in so many ways. I was only 19, and still maturing (slowly) so it played a big part in shaping the end product. It is difficult to remember all those ways, but I have come up with a random selection.

For the first time I enjoyed working and having a reasonable salary in my bank account every month. Before that I only had summer jobs. We were paid the equivalent of what a newly qualified teacher was earning in Scotland. The cost of living in France was higher than in Scotland, but school lunches and dinners were subsidised. Going back to being a student after it ended was not easy.

I had the opportunity to travel around that part of France with the rugby team for our away games every two weeks. Sightseeing was not possible obviously, but it was fascinating anyway. As well as Carcassonne and Castelsarrasin, I remember going to Thuir (near Perpignan in the Catalan area), Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees (on the route to Andorra), Cahors to the north, and St Girons - also in the Pyrenees but towards Lourdes.

Foix

Foix

My food and drink horizons changed out of all recognition. Southwest France is a gastronomic heartland of a gastronomic nation. Pastis and Armagnac were new experiences, as well as the huge range of high quality local wine which never goes for export. Even school lunches and dinners, or the occasional student refectory meal, were a massive step up from the food on offer in Scotland in the early 1970s.

Coffee was another eye opener. Having been limited to Nescafe most of my life until then, French coffee was a revelation. It took the UK 30 years to catch up.

Perfect Breakfast

Perfect Breakfast

My salary also gave me the chance to travel a bit. I went for a long weekend in Barcelona in early February, decades before the city became a compulsory weekend-break destination. At that time Franco was still in power, and as compared to France and Britain it had a real police state feel to it.

Barcelona Skyline, 2019

Barcelona Skyline, 2019

On my way back to Toulouse from Barcelona, I took the slow, scenic train through the Pyrenees with an overnight stop in the Spanish ski resort at La Molina. That was my first close up experience of a real mountain range.

For my Easter holidays I was invited to Morocco by Moroccan friends who were studying in Toulouse. I took an overnight train to Madrid, followed by another overnight train to Algeciras. Then it was a ferry to Tangier, and another train to Casablanca. It was great to be met by friendly faces off that train!

Casablanca Skyline

Casablanca Skyline

After a night or two in Casablanca we drove to the family farm (dairy and oranges) outside Marrakech. We had several nights there and then went we went to their home in Azilal, 1,350m (4,430 ft) up in the High Atlas mountains. Their father was a local governor, so the compound was guarded by army sentries. One day he went off in a helicopter and returned with a couple of dead “bandits”.

Their hospitality was extraordinary to me, but just normal to them.

M'hamid

M'hamid

I remember two downsides to my time in Toulouse. The first was everyone (me included) being conscious of my presence being very temporary. It meant making close friends was not easy.

The other was breaking my wrist playing rugby. Fortunately it was in the last game of the season in mid-May, but it meant I have my arm in plaster for the last 6 weeks of my time there. I was not allowed to work but I could not go back to Scotland either - I needed passport stamps showing 9 months in the country when I resumed university.

It was a difficult time, with most of my daily activity - work and rugby - gone.

St Cyprien

St Cyprien

I have visited Toulouse several times in recent years, staying in Airbnbs in the St Cyprien neighbourhood where I lived and worked over 40 years ago, and just loved soaking up the local way of life again. I hope I can do it again.

Posted by IainT 12:36 Archived in France Tagged me trains food scotland barcelona edinburgh france sport spain life transport morocco catalunya toulouse casablanca Comments (0)

1972 (Part 1)

sunny 22 °C

Hôtel Dieu, Toulouse

Hôtel Dieu, Toulouse

Are you ready for Chapter 3 of my Life Changing Travel series?

This chapter takes me back to 1972. In September that year I packed my bags and set off from Edinburgh to spend 9 months working in Toulouse. I was 19.

I was studying French and International Relations at Aberdeen University back then, and an academic year in France was a compulsory element of the course. The arrangements were all set up with the French Government such that those of us involved would be given jobs as language assistants in secondary schools.

In my case this had an extra twist. My services were sought by a Division 2 rugby team in Toulouse. Whilst everyone else was just sent randomly to schools all around the country, the president of the team arranged for me to be sent to a school in Toulouse located very close to the rugby club - in St Cyprien, for those who know the city.

Air travel was still a luxury back then, so the journey took me by train and ferry to Paris for a week at the Sorbonne doing an induction course. After that, Sunday morning brought another long train journey to Toulouse. In those days a fast train took about 8 hours.

Toulouse

Toulouse

The school day starts at 8am in France, so I was with my new employer bright and early on Monday. I was made very welcome, and because I was in the English department all my colleagues could help out if I did not understand something in French. In fact they were keen to polish up their English by practising on me.

Tuesday meant my first training session at the rugby club. At the Thursday training session I was told I would be playing on the Saturday - an away fixture at Castelsarrasin. It is north of Toulouse, on the road to Bordeaux.

It was daunting. I was still struggling with the local accent, on top of the inadequacies of 8 years of French tuition which had not produced very good speaking and comprehension skills. I was not very fit either, and of course the weather was about warmer than Scotland in early October.

© La Dépêche du Midi

© La Dépêche du Midi

I did not even know the names of all my new teammates, never mind the way they played.

It ended up 25-25, which were big scores back then and reflecting two teams playing an open, attacking style. In was sunny and in the upper 20s, so I suffered badly. It was a fantastic experience mind you, with the game played in front of a healthy crowd in a neat Stade Municipal.

Castelsarrasin (© Google)

Castelsarrasin (© Google)

Aside from the nuts and bolts of those first 2 weeks, some things remain etched in my memory. One of the first is the prices in Paris, even staying at the Cité Universitaire and eating in student refectories.

Then my arrival at Gare Matabiau in Toulouse, and taking a taxi to my bedsit across the river in St Cyprien. I could not understand a word the driver said. I decided he was Spanish and his French was not very good. Then I met my landlady and realised everyone spoke like that.

It was a steep learning curve, and it took me about 3 weeks to tune in to the local accent and patois. In fact the landlady spoke Occitan as her first language. French was for Sundays, occasional visits to government offices, and me. When she got agitated - which was often - she would mix the two.

Another eye opener was lunch in the school canteen. We got a two hour break (some colleagues went home to eat) and a 5 course lunch, with bread, wine and coffee. Whilst that may sound decadent by austere British standards (and utterly bacchanalian by presbyterian Scottish ones) the school day was 8am until 6pm, plus Saturday mornings.

The rugby culture was fascinating too. It was semi-professional, as I was in fact. In Scotland you bought all your own kit, paid a match fee for every game plus your share of travel costs for away games, as well as an annual club subscription. In France you paid nothing. All your kit was supplied. At that level, all the players were paid match fees with a bonus for winning.

After the game the teams did not go to a clubhouse - they did not exist - but to a local cafe/bar. Pastis was the drink, and not beer. I had a couple of dreadful hangovers until I got used to it. Following a few apéros, we would go to the team’s designated restaurant in Toulouse for a 3 course dinner, again paid for by the club. If we won, or got a draw away from home, the president treated us to champagne and cigars. This too caused me some discomfort the next day.

L'Apéro

L'Apéro

My blogging on this chapter of my life will need more than one post, so this section will close with my second rugby game in France. It was in Carcassonne, to the southeast of Toulouse, and one of the region’s top tourist attractions. Just after half time, the referee was forced to send off one of the home players for “repeated brutality” - mostly against me. This enraged the home supporters. Soon after, we scored a breakaway try to equalise the score, having been on the defensive most of the time. A 6-6 draw was our result in Carcassonne.

After the final whistle some of the crowd wanted trouble. They were known for this in Carcassonne, so the spectators were fenced in and the police were there to keep order. In fact, the police had to escort us and the referee out of the stand after we had changed, and then safely out of town.

Right, that is enough for now. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Posted by IainT 04:30 Archived in France Tagged trains food scotland paris edinburgh france sport life transport aberdeen toulouse Comments (0)

Scottish Islands

all seasons in one day 13 °C

Lockdown Reading

Lockdown Reading

Earlier this month I was looking for books to buy and found Scottish Island Bagging. Click, click, click and it was on its way to me from the publisher (in Sheffield, oddly enough).

Apart from a summer job in an Arran hotel in 1972, for most of my life the Scottish islands were a blank spot on my travel map. I remember a couple of day trips to Stornoway for work, and an overnight business trip to Shetland when we worked for 16 hours out of 24.

I woke up to this a few years ago and started to put things right.

Vatersay/Bhatarsaigh

Vatersay/Bhatarsaigh

In the space of 5-6 years I have visited Gigha, Islay, Tiree, Colonsay, Mull, Iona, Staffa, Ulva, Lismore, Seil, Kerrera, Luing, Easdale, Eigg, Barra, Vatersay, Eriskay, Lewis and Harris.

I have been back to Arran a few times in that period, and to Orkney (which I first visited about 10 years ago).

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

From my home in Fife, just across the water from Edinburgh, all these places make for quite a long trip and careful planning is needed. If a ferry is involved, often it means getting to Oban first and that is a 3 hour drive. Mallaig - for Eigg - is a good bit further. Tayinloan or Kennacraig, for Gigha and Islay respectively are also a 3 hour drive.

Usually you have to be at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before departure, and with building in a bit of time for toilet stops and contingencies, you have to leave the house at least 4 hours before the ferry time. You will have to make a reservation if you want to take your car on the more popular routes, and well in advance in the summer months. On the smaller ferries you just drive up and get on the next one.

Gigha Ferry

Gigha Ferry

I flew to Barra, Lewis, Tiree and Colonsay. Loganair was the carrier for most of those short hops, but I used Hebridean Air from Oban to get to Colonsay. All those flights are on small planes and lots of fun.

Waiting

Waiting

During the peak season accommodation is at a premium in these small places, so that has to form part of the advance planning. I think I have only once been disappointed by accommodation on the islands, but remember that it is a short season with relatively high demand (in normal times) so what you get may not always seem like value for money if compared with other parts of the country.

Where would be top of my list to return to? Iona. It is special. It has so much of the country’s history as well as being remote and slightly spiritual. I am not “spiritual” but on Iona I got it.

Jura Ferry

Jura Ferry

Where is top of my list to go to for the first time? Well, I will finish my book before I make up my mind, but at the moment Coll, Raasay or Canna.

Coll is a strong possibility because I loved nearby Tiree, and it is on Hebridean Air’s route map as well as Calmac's.

Raasay is easily accessible from Skye, which is a long drive from home but no ferries are involved. My late father had a long involvement with the buyout of the island from its absentee landlord during the 1970s, so I would love to see how it is now.

I loved my time on Eigg, and getting there and back by car, train and ship, so another of the Small Isles beckons. Canna seems right.

My View, Eigg

My View, Eigg

Meantime, I am staying at home and trying to stay safe. A good book helps.

Posted by IainT 23:31 Archived in Scotland Tagged beaches planes boats scotland ferries transport flights lewis airlines orkney barra lismore islay stornoway eigg calmac islandlife colonsay steòrnabhagh leòdhas na_hearadh barraigh vatersay bhatarsaigh eiriosgaigh eriskay Comments (0)

1966

France - Luxembourg Passport Control

France - Luxembourg Passport Control

When I was 13 I managed to get myself included in my high school’s established exchange scheme with a lycée in Metz. I remember some discussion about whether I was too young to benefit, but off I went.

It is strange to think back about those travel arrangements. Our group went all the way from Edinburgh by train and ferry. No planes. No Eurostar or Channel Tunnel. No TGV. As teenagers I suspect it was all an adventure but it must have been hard work for the teachers.

Metz - La Gare SNCF

Metz - La Gare SNCF

I stayed with a local family and they were super kind, but communication was a problem. I had been studying French for only 2 years. They took me on excursions to nearby Luxembourg, to the World War I battle site at Verdun, and into the Vosges mountains at Gérardmer.

Gérardmer

Gérardmer

Some memories remain vivid more than 50 years later.

Me (r) at Verdun

Me (r) at Verdun

Verdun is one. It made a lifelong pacifist of me. The key bit for me was the Ossuaire. It is the basement of the memorial building, where they place the bones of unknown soldiers which emerge from the ground as a result of weather or farming. It makes a impression, I assure you.

Verdun

Verdun

Luxembourg was great, and I have been back there several times for meetings at the EU Court of Justice and Commission. Crossing the border by car back then was “traditional” with passport and customs checks by both countries. The city is impressive, being largely surrounded by a deep ravine.

We also visited a steelworks at Longwy… Dante’s Inferno. Quite jaw dropping.

At some stage we went to visit my host’s grandparents on their small farm. The animals lived on the ground floor of the building, and the grandparents up above. The smell was quite something to a child of Edinburgh’s posh suburbs. I remember our lunch there. Tinned sardines on toast.

Gérardmer

Gérardmer

I also remember having a Sunday lunch in my hosts’ home. It was rabbit - again, not what the good people of Edinburgh’s professional classes would eat. My hosts kept the best bit for me - the head. The idea was to knock the top off the skull like eating a soft boiled egg, and spoon out the brain.

Boy, was I having an enriching cultural experience.

Posted by IainT 09:50 Archived in France Tagged trains france transport luxembourg metz verdun gerardmer Comments (0)

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