My Travel Book - Cape Town, Love at First Sight

It just so happens that for many reasons, I have been feeling terribly homesick lately. Homesick? What for? I am back from Brittany and I am quite happy to travel back and forth between Paris and Brussels. So what’s going on?

One year ago almost to the day, Swee’Pea and I flew to South Africa. We landed in Cape Town on the 19th of October around 10 a.m. in the morning.  After a twelve hours flight, direct from Paris.

We had booked two rooms at the Belmont Mount Nelson Hotel. “A very secure place,” Swee’Pea had said since our initial plans were to split upon arrival. I’d stay at the hotel for a few days while he’d go back to his apartment. The reason was evident. He had lent it to several friends while he was in France and he had not been there since the end of May so he had no idea whether or not it’d be fit for me. All right, I tend to be finicky!

And then we changed plans. Both of us would be staying at the hotel for as long as it would take to get the apartment ready. And we decided to spend at least a couple of days there just enjoying Cape Town without worrying about clean sheets, food and stuff like that.

Actually I have no idea how long it took us to get back to the apartment and settle there. Probably from 4 to 5 days. We went to the apartment almost right away though because we needed to get the car. The Discovery was very sweet and started up first time. After so many months in its garage, this was a real miracle. Old car but nice nature.

But let’s go back to our check-in in the hotel. We had been upgraded. So nice. They walked us to my suite - ladies first and wow, this is what I saw from my bedroom balcony!

Table Mountain. And I think this was the very minute I fell in love, hopelessly in love with Cape Town. Which really was a nice opening for the rest of our voyage. Love at first sight in Cape Town which grew into a very profound feeling towards South Africa.

I don’t know what I had expected. I had read books and watched documentaries. But there it was. Powerful. Monumental. Majestic. Hieratic. Of course this was where the God Tsui used to live before the Portuguese arrived.

And then, on the right, Lion’s Head which I still have to hike. Not enough time besides the fact that Swee’Pea was a little bit worried about me getting tired. I want so much to see the Fynbos there. South African flora is so extremely beautiful and varied.

Speaking about tired, my first foray into Cape Town started like this… before we had lunch.

“Let’s go take a walk around,” I said.
“Really, mom? Aren’t you feeling tired?” was the answer which became a leitmotiv throughout all our stay. I never felt tired in Cape Town and South Africa. I guess that I probably made my son’s life some kind of misery! I was always willing to move around… One day of rest and I’d feel like I’d be missing the most important thing ever…

Even though he proved to be a very good guide after all.

Mount Nelson Hotel is right where a hotel should be — in the heart of the historical center. And right by the wonderful Company’s Garden.

And this was where I wanted to start exploring Cape Town.

One word about the Company’s Garden. It was created by Jan van Riebeek in 1652 because the Dutch settlers needed fresh produce for the ships. A vegetable garden which was slowly converted into a renowned botanical garden in the 18th century, thus enabling the Dutch settlers to export bulbs, etc. to Europe.

And it is right by the hotel. How could I miss such an opportunity? Off we went. It was not a long walk after all. Swee’Pea kept providing me with names and names of buildings. I was trying hard to be all ears and yet I was only half listening because of the sounds and the scents and the people and the flora and the animal life.

It was so different and surprising that I did not take many pictures then. I kind of tried to immerse myself in the Garden. Imagine a park filled with city workers and high school students lunching and resting there and hundreds of pigeons and squirrels fighting over crumbs. 

Huge lawns and shady paths, blooming exotic flowers, gigantic trees. Sculptures and historical buildings. Fountains and Egyptian geese. Such a vibrant and yet so peaceful place.

With such a wonderful view of Table Mountain.

I was flabbergasted and enthralled. I felt so perfectly safe there. And we were. I went back there several times, sometimes on my own and never ever felt any hostility nor aggressiveness there. Even with my expensive professional camera dangling on my chest. (Johannesburg will be another altogether different experience but this is another story.)

I always felt at ease in Cape Town. I knew there were obvious things not to be done. Which more or less applies to Paris, Brussels and New York, etc.

On our way back to the hotel, Swee’Pea set up rules when he realized that I’d be kind of getting out of control because of my euphoric state of mind… 

Always be on the look out. Good! (Paris, Brussels, New York, what’s the difference?) Accept never to take a walk alone after sundown! (I wouldn’t even do that in Brussels anyway.) No staring at people (which is something I may do a lot but only with a picture in mind). Ok, so no to staring at people. (I learnt to look at people on the sly… Not too hard since I already do that in Paris, while riding in the subway.)

And I was told especially not to stare at Blacks. Why should I be staring at Blacks? Oh my God, I had forgotten that in South Africa, people are legally defined by their origins… and you talk about people as belonging to a group: Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Asians (Indians). Quite hard to stomach for someone like me who tend to be color blind, but this is again another story. So I promised. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Except that whenever I would feel like staring at an outstanding human, it still would be hard for me to make a difference.

Nice late lunch in my room.

And night fell quite early.

Tomorrow was to be another day. But I already knew that parting from the Cape Town area would be very painful.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Going Back to School or Going Back Home?

It all started again with the picture of the Canal du Midi my friend Carol published on Facebook. Memories emerged from way back in my life and they kept on pouring from my mind or wherever they were hiding.

Pictures are sometimes fearsome. The role they play in my life is boundless.

In 2011, Popeye offered me a wonderful birthday gift. He flew with me back to Southern France - Carcassonne and Arfons and Lastours and quite a few other places in Languedoc. The trip triggered a lot of memories and I harvested so many pictures that I think I could write a novel. Well, probably not.

The summer before last, Swee’Pea and I went back to Southern France again. We needed to find someone to mend our wall in Arfons. We had also decided to stop in Saissac on our way back from Arfons to Carcassonne and visit my mother since we had not seen her for a long time. (The visit ended in a fiasco and no pictures were taken which can be attributed to that.)

We travelled by train from Paris to Béziers where we rented a car and then proceeded to Arfons. On our way, we went through Capestang where I had spent my first school year. Leaving the village, Swee’Pea noticed a road sign.  Montels, 4 kms. He said: “This must be the village where you lived while you were going to school in Capestang. Let’s go. I’ve never been there.”

Honestly, I did not really wish to go back there but what can you do to put a damper on a young man’s enthusiasm? Or was it my idea after all, on the spur of the moment? I am not really sure now.

Anyway, we drove to Montels on the same road I had walked on every school day on my way back from school. From junior high school in Capestang to the Montels elementary school, the one where we were living in since my mother was the teacher there.

My life has revolved around schools for a long time.

I still remember living in Normandy in a very small cabin, a gift from the American government to the village which had been heavily bombed and had lost its elementary school for girls. We lived there in two rooms (two adults and three children plus my Bonne-Maman whenever she came to help us). There was a bigger room where my mother taught school, which we used as a living room and where the children would sleep as soon as school was over. This was a few years after the war. My sister and my brother were born there.

Then we moved into a much bigger and brand new house by the new school when my brother turned one and I was seven. There wasn’t much privacy. The house was really close to the school, less than ten meters away in some sort of a compound. At that time I was mainly homeschooled, most of the time on my own… Funny for a headmistress’ daughter. Life was very complicated, I guess.

Then my parents’s relationships went from bad to worse and my mother decided to move back to Southern France. She was transferred to a very small school, in a tiny hamlet, Montels. One school and a few houses. 20 kms from the city (Béziers) and 4 kms from the nearest village, Capestang.

She had been the headmistress of a three classes school in a big village in Normandy.

In Montels, they had reopened the school because that year, there would be 6 children from 4 to 11 years old (including my sister and my brother) in the hamlet. Two children spoke only Spanish. I remember my mother really felt demoted instead of relishing in the challenge. Besides the fact that we were free from our father’s violence.

For me, this all turned out to be a happy year. I was going to school for the first time. I loved the new experience. I developped an extremely good relationship with all the teachers. For the first and last time in my life, I did not have any trouble fitting into the system. I did not make a lot of friends there since I was not living in Capestang. But the kids in my class, boys and girls alike, were nice with me even though I was from 2 to 3 years younger than most of them.

The school in Montels was a derelict old house. Nobody had lived there ever since 1940, I think. There was no bathroom. No running water either. One sink. And no heating system besides a huge fireplace in the living room. We did have electricity though! And I had my own bedroom.

Getting water from the public pump was quite a harrowing experience. The wheel was huge and water would only get to the faucet after the wheel had revolved at least five times. I remember the village women would queue to get water at about the same time. They were mostly Spanish refugees. You only needed to energize the wheel once… So there always was one very unlucky woman to start the process! And afterwards, we’d talk a lot, mixing gleefully French and Spanish.

Once again, I was the youngest one. There were only a couple of boys my age in the hamlet and there was not even one teenager there.

The house was in a sorry state, gloomy and very moist inside. I remember that my mother kept the footboards of our beds dipped into deep bowls of water to prevent small and rather dark scorpions from getting into our bedding. Every morning, we’d shake off our slippers and shoes and clothes… and one or several scorpions would run away… We had a big bucket outside filled with water where we’d throw the scorpions as soon as we caught them! It was fun… and not fun…

Mice and spiders have never bothered me very much as I grew up!

The road was still the same. But the hamlet has grown into a small village with brand new houses, all of them with swimming pools. The school and its surroundings still look quite neglected though.

I expected a surge of emotions but I felt ok. Almost as if I had never belonged there… However memories came back quite easily.

There have been a few changes ever since we had left Montels, never to come back, in 1959.

The two gates are still there. One wonders. Why two gates for such a small school? When we arrived there in 1958, the school had been closed for more than fifteen years. Before and even after WWII, boys and girls were not supposed to mix at school. In Normandy, there were two separate public schools. One for the boys and one for the girls.

In Montels, there never were enough pupils to have two schools. The playground was divided in two by low railings. Boys and girls would enter the school through two different gates, left and right and then they would get into the schoolroom through two different corridors. Then they would sit on their designated side of the room, one for the boys and the other one for the girls. No mixing of the sexes, you see. Even though the curriculum was exactly the same.

The school boasted a sign that said “coeducational school” since they could not have two different buildings after all.

When my mother arrived in Montels (before we did), she had a meeting with the mayor, I think or whoever had authority over the school and she asked for the railings to be removed. The discussion was extremely stormy, she said. The man had gone to school there and he just couldn’t see the point of allowing boys and girls to mix anyway. But she finally won.

At the start of the new school year, the railings had been removed. And on the first schoolday, she opened one gate. Only one. The children went in together. All this fuss was pretty incredible when you realize that there were only one girl and three boys coming from the hamlet since my sister and brother were living in the school building.

They also went in the classroom through the same door, the left one. My mother had barred the door on the right since it also opened onto our private stairway. Which gave us some privacy, after all.

At first, parents looked worried but since they were really too busy to come and look for them after school, the boys and the girl would walk back together to their homes. My mother’s decision never had disastrous consequences for us since all year long and almost every morning, we found fruits, vegetables and even sometimes small game (plucked and flayed) on our doorstep. Anonymous but nice.

The school still looks more or less the way it was 55 years ago. Two gates. Two doors. There are a few changes though. On the left, a small building has been built above what used to be a wall and a door has been opened up, probably to accomodate a teacher. And on the right, a very tiny public library has replaced one of the small covered playgrounds.

Our old living quarters above the classroom looked totally forsaken. I wondered if someone else has ever lived there since our departure. People moved away from Montels after we did. There were no children there once more. They closed the school.

Since there are now 229 people living in Montels, there are most certainly several young children who go to school there again. The classroom windows and doors look new and they have decorated the covered playground with a most awful fresco! So weird!

Nobody was there. We decided to have a look around. I was afraid the door to the garden would be locked. It was not and obviously someone had kind of tried to break in a while ago into the building. 

I was very surprised by the size of the garden. It looked so small. I remembered a huge fig tree and several pomegranate trees because we gorged with their very exotic fruits. In 1958, it was just like being in the Jungle Book, minus the wild animals. Well, we were ten, six and four years old!
In 2014, it looked like a sad and small litter tray.

I stood looking at the backdoor for the longest time. Behind this door, there used to be a huge bookcase, from floor to ceiling. I had never seen anything like it before. And it was totally filled with books, dozens and dozens of old bound volumes. Dusty, smelly and mouldy books. Lovely books.

I became a bookworm in Montels. No friends around and so many books at my entire disposal. They were all there. So many great authors from the past, from Homer and Victor Hugo to Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas and Pierre Loti and Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and so many others who broadened my mind and probably triggered this unquenchable thirst of learning and reading I have felt all my life.

I would like to know who has built up this incredible reservoir of knowledge nobody ever used for ages until a ten years old girl discovered it. And why?

I wonder if the books have been kept safe after we left. Could I have found them in that tiny village library in the schoolyard? I’ll never know but I hope they are still there.

My mother was promoted, the following year. Besides the fact that they had to close the school once more. We moved to Béziers. A big city with a public high school for girls and a public high school for boys. No kidding!

My parents were back together, alas. And my troubled school years were only beginning but I could care less. I had discovered a new endless treasure trove: the  town library!

Good bye, Montels and the school I never went to but which I called home for one whole year.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


The "Canal du Midi" and Yours Truly

I spent a few hours on a weird emotional low after coming upon this picture my friend Carol posted on Facebook. Why should a Facebook picture have such an impact on me?

Carol and her husband were on a trip down South which is something they do quite often since they bought a house not very far from where I grew up. Carol always posts a few pictures on her Facebook page to share what they see and enjoy with family and friends. I am always on the look out for her pictures because she’s got “the” eye. She really is a good photographer. (And I like her a lot too!)

My friends were in Capestang probably walking on the towpath along the Canal du Midi.

I gasped when I saw the picture and I couldn’t help but leave a very demonstrative comment: “Oh non! Where are all the plane trees? I went to Junior High in Capestang. The Canal looks so forlorn now.”

And Carol answered: “They have a fungal disease and had to be cut down. To keep their UNESCO status they have to plant more. Didn't know you went to Jr. high there!”

The elliptical shortcut I used is quite interesting. Plane trees and Jr. high! Too many memories barreling along, I guess. I went to junior high for one year in Capestang. I was ten and this was to be my very first (official) school year but I made it to the seventh grade right away. The year spent in Capestang and Montels (where my mother was teaching school), two miles away, was a great year for many reasons and my “outdoorsy” life included long walks along the Canal. Platanus and junior high! The Canal du Midi and a much younger self.

I’ve been living in Brittany for a long time now but I’ll never forget the Southern country roads lined up with stately plane trees, the same plane trees that protected the Canal against the sun, offering friendly shade to the barges and to the horses that towed the barges and to the men who were leading the horses.

Let me digress now. Thirty years ago or so, because many reckless drivers ended up dead in their cars coiled up around plane trees, some town councils decided to cut the trees down and some even replaced them with plastic trees… People kept driving madly and ended up dead anyway in ditches or in vineyards. Somehow politicians understood that the fault lied with the drivers. They stopped sacrificing trees.

My sister had told me about the canker that was killing a lot of plane trees but I had heard about some kind of vaccine. So I was not overly worried about those wonderful trees.
Now the plane trees are very sick along the Canal du Midi. In some places like in Capestang, “they” have decided to cut them down. And like Carol said, because the place trees were part of the UNESCO deal, they’ll have to replant. Meanwhile there will be stumps. And it kind of hurts.

You see, my personal history with the Canal du Midi goes back a very long time.

I was one year old when my mother took me for a walk along what is called the “Rigole du Lampy”. (I can produce proof of what I am saying. But I don’t have the picture at hand. You’ll have to believe me!)

(By the way, I was an early walker but that day, I probably ended up in a stroller, like any normal baby, believe me because it is a long walk.) 

The Lampy...

And its dam

The important thing is that I grew up convinced that the Canal du Midi did start its majestic life a mere 4 kms from Arfons, my grandmother’s village I wrote about. All my friends were likewise sure that the Lampy reservoir shaped like a genuine wild lake was the womb where the Canal fed itself from, so strong was our belief that the Canal was a living entity. (And I obviously still believed it in 2011!)

Actually it does start not very far from the Lampy but not at the “Rigole”, some 20 kms away. So it still belongs to the “Montagne Noire” and was an extraordinary achievement in France in the XVIIth century.


Of course we were told that the Canal had been built as a umbilical cord between the Mediterranean area to the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries, food and staples were transported from our sea to the ocean on barges pulled by horses until the day motorization spread across Europe including Southern France.

Bye-bye, neighing horses and men swearing like a trooper along the towpath. Hello, chugging sounds.

The trees were still there. The barges became scarce what with the development of rail and truck transport. But the trees remained and the Canal kept flowing slowly but surely.

Southerners are resilient. They breathed new life into the Canal. Tourism was a godsend. Nowadays tens of small barges take up the Canal, carrying their load of tourists from all over Europe.

Not very far from Carcassonne, Trèbes’ banks were converted into some kind of marina, one of many such places on the Canal.

The XVIIth century locks are still useful and most of them are still operated by  lock keepers.

Hikers and riders appropriated the towpath and believe me, it is a great place to go for a hack. At least it used to be on a vey sunny day, underneath the arch of stately trees.

The trees are disappearing. My memories are not fading away. All I need to do is close my eyes and conjure up the spirits of the plane trees of yesteryear.

I guess I’ll keep my eyes shut for quite a long time. But I know trees and I am patient and if faith can move mountains, it also can help young trees grow again along the Canal and become just as stately as their ancestors.


*Good Luck, and Good Night*


My Travel Book - There Is a Place in Brittany...

Life is always so surprising. You think you know a place inside out because you’ve been there so many times. And yet…

There is a place in Brittany called the “baie de la Fresnaye”. It’s quite large, mostly marshland but when the sea gets there, it turns into an impressive maritime expanse - one of the greatest spots for wakeboarding.

 A formidable fort protects its entrance ever since the Middle Ages. Fort Lalatte, not very far from Cap Fréhel.

We have been going there for ages. Like I said, it is a great wakeboarding spot, a wonderful place to laze around on board whenever the west wind gets a little bit too strong and a fun place to explore since it is quite easy to draw alongside the fort, swim to very small beaches and walk up to Lalatte for a change.

Do you remember our encounter with the Mola Mola? It happened right there in the Baie de la Fresnaye.

Follow the arrow on the right and you’ll notice a big and tall buoy on the right. It sticks out of the water so that seamen will steer away from it. This is not a mooring buoy. It signals a wreck.

The first time we were there, a long time ago, we did wonder what kind of boat had met such an unhappy end there. And then we became so used to the buoy that we even quit noticing it.

Anglers seem to love the place. We keep our distance.

Last week-end, we went boating for a couple of hours. It was a sunny and nippy autumn day.

Not very far from the harbor of Saint-Cast, a ship was anchored on the open sea. A big ship. French Navy. Usually you don’t go boating round a Navy boat out of sheer curiosity. She won’t try to send you to the bottom, at least not in Brittany! You just don’t.

I took a picture from afar and then I forgot all about it until last Monday when I opened the regional rag, you know, the kind of newspaper where you learn all about car accidents, burglaries and fairs in your area besides which boat or ship dropped anchor in one of the many harbours around. There it was. The Laplace (A793), a research ship which belongs to the French Navy and is engaged in hydrographic survey and oceanographic research.

My highly developed inquiring mind got my fingers to work. I turned my computer on and etc., etc. There it was! The first Laplace...

©Marine Nationale

It wasn’t hard at all. The Laplace had called at the Saint-Cast port to take an active part in a commemoration service. You see this ship shares her name with another research ship which was hit by a German magnetic mine and  sank straight to the bottom on the 16th of September 1950, 65 years ago.

A Nazi mine in 1950 in the Baie de La Fresnaye?

On the 15th of September, 1950, the Laplace was on her way to Saint-Malo and she dropped anchor not very far from Fort Lalatte. The sea was rough. She and her 92 crew members looked for shelter at night in the Baie de la Fresnaye, less than one hour away from Saint-Malo. Five years after the end of the war.

As a reminder… During WWII, Brittany was invaded and heavily occupied by the Nazis mostly because of its 1.100 coastal miles. Their line of defence was impressive. They were convinced of the high probability of Allied landings there to reconquer France and Europe. Long story short of course. There were blockhaus (bunkers) all over the place, heavy artillery spots and of course naval mines everywhere at sea and on the beaches.


After the war, the coastal fields and the cliffs were cleaned out. So was the sea except for a few lethal contraptions called naval magnetic mines that kept bobbing in the waters for a long time. The Laplace stood no chance of escaping such a mine if one was still around.

The ship was struck on the 16th of September, fifteen minutes past midnight. Most of the seamen were asleep. Those who survived the explosion plunged into the raging sea and found themselves trapped in the fuel spill or were swept out to sea by the ebb tide. The captain chose to go down with the Laplace, true to tradition.

Help came in the early morning hours. Too late for many men. 51 seamen and researchers died that night.

I was stunned when I realized that the wreck buoy was signalling the Laplace which was lying 15 meters down below by Fort Lalatte.  

©Fred Martin - movie about the wreck

So you see, life is always full of surprises. Some great. Some bad. This one is very distressing because the buoy will forever represent those 51 men who met their dreadful fate on the 16th of September 1950, 5 years after the war ended, when a long-forgotten magnetic naval mine finally accomplished its mission of destruction and death.

There is a memorial in Saint-Cast which faces the exact spot where it all happened. The view is mesmerizing. The monument and the list of names put me off quite a bit.

Last Monday, I wished I had not opened the newspaper… There is a place in Brittany... 
The view is mesmerizing. 

And yet…

*Good Luck, and Good Night*