The sound of iron wheels and shod hooves crossing cobble stone streets awakened me. People talked to one another and it took a moment to realize it was in French. The wonderful aroma of baking bread wafted through the window.
Tossing back the feather-filled cover, I placed my feet on the highly polished wooden floor and glanced at my wrist watch. Six AM! How could I oversleep like that? I grinned and stretched, rising to walk to the open door onto the balcony.
Pelicans skimmed the water of the bay, often no more than a meter above the gentle waves. About a kilometer to my left, the south, clouds of terns and seagulls swirled in tornadoes of wings against piers where fishing boats tied up to unload their catch. More sails glided into port from the Atlantic.
I padded over to the bathtub and stripped, pleased at the warmth of the water from the hand-held shower head. Not quite as hot as back in the barracks but comfortable. I lathered myself and put a new blade in my razor to remove what little hair grew on my teenage face. After toweling myself, I brushed my teeth before donning my OD boxer shorts and tee shirt. I repacked my handy little shaving kit and put my dirty clothes into the bottom of my backpack.
The one reason for selecting that particular inn, beside the security for my motor scooter, was breakfast. This was my first introduction to a Continental Breakfast. The small dining room had a half dozen tables covered with snowy white cloths. A sideboard held plates, cups and small dishes. A mother, father and a young boy and girl sat at one table. A couple occupied another.
I sighed with relief when the one man stood and introduced himself – in English [or British] – to welcome me. “Is this your first breakfast like this?” I told him yes and he invited me to join he and his wife, introducing themselves as being on vacation from some town in England. His wife rose and went to the sideboard, returning with a plate holding a croissant, two small pats of butter and a small cup of marmalade, and an egg in a cup clearly designed to hold it.
I had absolutely no idea what to do with the egg. So, the guy demonstrated how one carefully removed the top, showing the soft-boiled interior. I rose and went to the sideboard myself to pour of glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee.
It was delicious! I hadn't had unsalted butter since living on the ranch. The orange juice had as much pulp as juice. The bread had to be less than an hour or so out of the oven.
And the conversation with my table mates was most enjoyable. He had served in the British Army during the Korean War. They were on the first half of their month-long vacation time. The shared their time between the beach and the town's market place.
The breakfast room overlooked the beach front and, as early as it was, people were already out on the sand and even in the sea.
The women then gave me one of probably the best tips I'd received up to then – gratuities in Europe were included in the price. To tip was often an insult and they think you are trying to shove your economic status in their faces.
I had no detailed plan for the day's travel except to cross into Spain and then travel along the southern edge of the Pyrenees. I quickly reached the border where brightly uniformed border guards smiled and waved me through, obviously seeing the US Forces license plate on my scooter.
It was like entering a new world. The people wore colorful clothing. Window boxes overflowed with bright flowers on every balcony. Smiles predominated.
Following Rand and McNally, I turned inland to reach famous Pamplona. I could almost see Papa Hemingway watching the running of the bulls. The mountains to the north began to grow higher as I rode east and I began to worry whether my scooter had enough horsepower to get me over them.
I needn't worry. The well-paved roads kept a reasonable grade, often with awesome switchbacks.
I stopped for a light lunch in Jaca, Spain and found someone who spoke enough English to tell me I could cross the mountains back into France before nightfall. The scooter had a headlamp but I didn't want to find myself in the middle of nowhere in the dark. Besides, I was already having enough trouble concentrating on the highway and the passing vehicles without trying to ride at night.
I think the biggest breath-holder of the trip came when I entered a tunnel that seemed to go on forever. Part of it had those open arches. I pulled into one and got off the scooter to grab hold of the ledge as I gazed out at mountains making me feel puny.
I'm certain this is not the hotel I stayed in in Candanchú but it was similar. Again, the person behind the desk greeted me nicely and I found it difficult to believe I was back in France. I had not had a bit of trouble at the border. The village was a winter resort and with little to no snow on the ground, few visitors were there. That's probably why I was treated so nicely. Dinner was quite good and I enjoyed a lentil soup along with a piece of roast beef. And yes, I had a couple of glasses of red wine.
I walked around the town until about nine o'clock, with a stop at one sidewalk café for a glass of wine and to watch the people in the square.
The bed was comfortable and I snuggled into the big feather bed, dropping quickly asleep.
My interest in Cathedrals came from having lived with Kit, an Irish Catholic from South Boston who had married Jack [the man who'd never adopted me]. I think it was due to her that I'd seen the 1940 move, The Song of Bernadette. With that in mind, my next destination was Lourdes, in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees.
I'd quickly become enamored with the Continental Breakfast and the hotel in Candanchú, France did not let me down. The crescent rolls still smelled and felt fresh from the oven. Topped with unsalted butter and marmalade, they went well with everything else.
An ESSO station near the hotel allowed me to top off the tank of my peppy little Lambretta. An aside, the current popularity of these nifty little things always makes me smile. I doubt very few Americans truly realize how much Europeans rely upon them to get around. I checked the map to ensure I knew how to get to my next destination. Some figuring told me it was about 120 kilometers or just about 75 miles.
Actually having to back off the accelerator to keep the speed down. Riding the very edge of the highway while monster trucks roared past. What a great way to enjoy some spectacular vistas. Rivers and streams joined mountain lakes. Green evergreens covered the slopes.
It did not take long until I reached the village of Escot where the two lane highway wended its way east through the rugged foothills. It took a bit over an hour to reach Bilhères where I encountered an awesome switchback road over a mountain pass.
I reached Lourdes around eleven in the morning.
The town itself was quaint and the people did not seem all that upset by having an obvious American GI in their midst. I found a small café and settled in for a bottle of soda pop, a soup and a ham sandwich. It took but a brief look around to tell me the town had one main industry – tourism. Everywhere one looked were shops and stores announcing the grotto and the miracle of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a poor, peasant girl.
Every sign pointed to The Grotto. I found a parking lot and secured the motor scooter, although an old man missing a leg with a patch over his eye clearly tried to tell me he would guard it with his life for a mere sou or two.
The story of Jesus and the money changers in the temple in Jerusalem instantly came to mind as I neared the grotto.
Everywhere I looked, some poor, cripple soul in ragged clothing held out relics and souvenirs for the faithful. Tiny vials of water offering miracle cures. I don't want to sound cynical here [which I am by the way] but, if the water miraculously cured all ills, why where there so many sick and disabled? While I had often felt at peace while sitting in old churches and cathedrals, I left filled with disappointment – and even anger.
I couldn't get away from there fast enough.
My next destination was a town I had read about that supposedly still had walls surrounding it – Carcassonne. It had been been originally built by the Romans and expanded into a city by the Visigoths. The map told me it was a little over two hours from Lourdes and I happily marked out side roads so I did not have to go through the city of Tolouse.
The view from a distance was awesome. But, what would it look like up close?
I had to remember that this part of the country had been controlled by the Vichy Government and thus escaped the bombing and fighting of the recent World War.
The first thing I did was find a small inn not far from the city itself and checked in. It had a courtyard for the motor scooter and I made certain breakfast came with the room. I would learn asking that question was unnecessary as breakfast ALWAYS came with similar rooms. It was still early so I walked into the city.
It didn't take long to learn one had to pay to enter the walled city itself. In 1958, the entry price was very cheap for an American. I think the conversion came to something like thirty cents.
It was worth the price.
They had done an outstanding job of hiding modern amenities like electric lights. I found a small bar and sat at an outside table to drink a glass of red wine. After an hour of watching the people – all clearly tourists – passing by, I got up and climbed up onto the parapets of the old fortress.
What a great view of the countryside.
Neatly maintained farms, appearing like sculptures far below. Here and there, wagons drawn by horses or mules. Lights showing here and there as the sun set over the hills to the west, head and tail lights marking roads. An old man came by with a strange instrument shaped like a long hook at the end of a pole. I quickly saw he was using it to light scones on the stone walls. I had already learned that visitors were to leave the inner city by ten o'clock, unless they had a room in one of the expensive hotels there.
I made it back to the inn, my stomach telling me I was going to regret having nothing to eat for dinner. Much to my happy surprise, the wife of the proprietor ran a kitchen for guests and was still open. Another discovery was that only we uncivilized Americans dined before eight or nine in the evening. The tables were covered in snowy linen and they served a very nice red wine. The opening course was a fresh salad followed by soup and the main entrée like the picture above. And, there was of course, coffee with thick cream and a very tasty pastry.
I took a walking tour of the area for an hour before returning to my room and collapsing into the atrociously warm and comfortable bed.
I set off to the east after breakfast, my destination the town of Narbonne. I wanted to see it as I'd read it had been founded by the Roman sometime in the BCs. Sure enough, I found a set of stones that were an old roman road.
It was still early, so I turned around and headed for Toulouse. I was situated towards the headwaters of the Garonne River that would lead me back to Bordeaux. Like every other town or city back in the late 1950's, the city was surrounded by farms and fields. I decided to follow the signs to the town square where I found a small cafe and, after parking my motor scooter, sat at a table to enjoy a snack.
The trip had become a bit tiring so I decided to get on my way and head back to Bordeaux, then Bussac. Instead of going to the city, I turned north at Agen on the highway to Bergerac. Who did not know of that town! The home of Cyrano de Bergerac. And they certainly let one know of their famous hero/lover. Heck! I had no idea that he was a real person.
However, there it was – a statue to the real person. Was I ever shocked to learn that his first lover was Charles Coypeau d'Assoucy, a writer and musician!!!
Back on the road through rambling hills with farms, little streams, and lots of woods. I still couldn't get used to how manicured and tended everything was. I never once saw a bit of wild landscape like we have here in the USA.
I know this sounds weird, but it was a bit of a relief to return to the communal barracks. It was “home” to me. I even enjoyed the ribbing from the other guys in the platoon.
As some who read this blog might now know, I just received a shock in a comment posted by a guy who was stationed in the same unit at the same time I was. How in the heck is that for coincidence. At the same time, I really hate to admit this, but I just cannot picture Lonny, no matter how hard I try. He remember Ralph and even the names of our lieutenant and warrant officer. Maybe he can even tell me the last name of Harold who came from Redding, California. We joked about it as I came from Redlands and the two always got mixed up.
Well, enough of this for now. There's only one little hint I'd like make for some of the upcoming posts. It is -----