At the Western Edge of Europe (3): We skirt the “vast cracked pavement” of the Burren hills

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Emerald green and grey, the colours of the Irish countryside along the Burren Way, here exemplified in shamrocks…

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…and rough-cut stone walls.

On the morning of July 24th Emmy and I walked out of Doolin heading for the seaside hamlet of Fanore, twenty kilometres to the north. It was a quiet day of unremarkable walking, just what we needed after the small stresses of the previous two days. Our path took us inland through pastureland, along deserted village roads between hedgerows of tangled blackberry and endless low walls of rough-cut stone. The temperature was a cool seventeen degrees. The sky hung over us low and grey, sending us two short sharp showers of misty rain. From the high slopes above the coast we could look out over the Atlantic Ocean and see the blurred spectres of the Aran Islands stretched along the horizon.

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The view out to the Aran Islands from the Irish mainland between Doolin and Fanore in County Clare.

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The walking was quiet and easy, between kilometres of stone walls through treeless pasture.

The sea wind muscled in through the open front door of our B&B in Fanore, rattling doors and filling the big house with a subdued howling and groaning. We dined on the deservedly famous fish and chips at O’Donohoe’s pub, and (with the front door of the B&B shut and the house silent) we slept soundly. The following day dawned dark. A glance from our bedroom window revealed rain sparkling on sheets of water along the coast road. Today we would not be walking over miles of slippery flat stones in the treeless expanse of the Burren hills, aptly described as “a landscape of bedrock incorporating a vast cracked pavement of glacial-era limestone”. Around midday, huddled against bullying showers, we stood opposite O’Donohoe’s pub and flagged down a local bus for the twenty kilometre trip to our next stop, the neat little town of Ballyvaughan on the southern shores of Galway Bay.

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The rocky Burren hills. Not for us… at least not on a day of misty rain. (Photo by Fish Cop, Wikimedia public domain)

Our B&B – the Ballyvaughan Lodge – was one of the most welcoming, most comfortable and best run we have stayed in during our many years of multi-day walking. Our host, Gerry, was more than welcoming. He took the trouble to immediately learn the names of all his guests and always addressed them by name. He served a very special breakfast on tables with starched tablecloths and serviettes embroidered with the house initials. The tea even came in porcelain teapots kitted out in woolen cozies. The breakfast omelette “with the lot” – prepared by Gerry’s wife Pauline – was the best omelette I have ever tasted, far surpassing that served in the five-star Dublin hotel where we stayed the following week. Emmy ordered “soldiers” (without really knowing what they were). The soldiers turned out to be fingers of toast that came with a soft-boiled egg served in its own little woolen beanie. When the top of the egg was sliced off, the bars of toast were dipped into the soft yolk and lifted in your fingers to be eaten. Emmy found this dish so unbelievable that she ordered it again the following morning just to reassure herself it was not a kitchen accident, or a figment of her imagination.

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Breakfast at the Ballyvaughan Lodge, and this was just for starters!

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Toasted “soldiers” with a soft-boiled egg under the beanie to the right.

So it took a special effort for us to lace up our boots, fill our water bottles, shoulder our backpacks, and head out for the final day’s walk on the Burren Way itinerary. It was a loop walk that snaked ten kilometres through woodland and deserted backroads past the vast “cracked pavement” of the Burren hills, returning us four hours later to our beginning point in Ballyvaughan. The walk turned out to be a little more demanding than we expected. It was well way-marked, and we had a good map and instructions, but we had to keep our wits about us. The problem was the lush growth of summer grass that concealed the track in several places, plus the week’s non-stop showers that, here and there, had erased the track under runnels of mud. Several times I consulted our GPS phone app to check our position and get back on track after straying off the route.

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Our map of the Ballyvaughan Wood Loop. The left side of the heart-shaped loop was mostly woods and pasture, tangled and wet on the day we walked it. The right side was quiet farm roads. The halfway point of the walk was the Aillwee Caves (bottom centre) where we stopped for lunch. Ignore the 2:30 hours estimated duration of the walk in the top line. It took us more than four hours, although this did include a light lunch at the Aillwee Caves.

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Here be leprechauns, banshees and fairies. Note the way-markers on the right.

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An unexpected danger. Apparently the chickens of Ireland are particularly vicious.

But it was a very satisfying final outing. That evening, as we dined on juicy lamb shanks in Ballyvaughan’s Wild Atlantic restaurant, we were able to look each other in the eye and say “we did it!” We walked for a month through Germany, France and Ireland. A few times we took short-cuts or traveled a segment of our route by bus or taxi, but altogether we had walked about 160 kilometres. We had toughened up, we had enjoyed extraordinary hospitality, we had seen beautiful sights and eaten good food (and some truly terrible food too) and met many warm personalities. We had also been mentally challenged (travel and hiking are always a bit unpredictable), we had been invigorated by the sweetness of solitude and each other’s company, and we had lost weight (though not a lot). Now it was time to head home to the chill of Canberra’s winter.

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Mission accomplished. We’re on our way home, but we’ll be coming back.

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With Denis, on a detour to show us the views over Galway Bay. For the instant required to take this photo, Denis stopped talking. In the space of one hour with him, we learned everything about Ireland, from superannuation to immigration, to foreign policy, to the impact of Brexit, to divorce and the Catholic church. It was a pleasure to be his customer.

As we lifted off from Dublin Airport I saw before me a gallery of the Irish people we had met since touching down at Shannon. Declan who drove us from Shannon to Liscannor and insisted on wrangling our two heavy suitcases, one by one, from the boot of his taxi twenty-five metres through light rain into the reception desk in the Cliffs of Moher Hotel; the effusively warm Kimberley at the Cliffs of Moher Hotel, originally from California but now more Irish than the Irish; PJ at the Seacoast Lodge in Fanore who told me that, with the name “Quinn”, I was more Irish than he was (I barely understood his heavy Irish accent); Gerry and Pauline, hosts extraordinaire at the Ballyvaughan Lodge and custodians of the world’s best breakfast; and the garrulous Denis who drove us from Ballyvaughan to Galway railway station, taking a lengthy detour at no extra cost to show us scenic panoramas we would never otherwise have seen. Plus the nameless young woman who jumped from her car when she saw us consulting our map at an intersection outside Doolin. She had auburn hair with ginger highlights, bright hazel-green eyes and a pasty-white complexion studded with freckles. In short, an epitome of Irish beauty. She had even painted her fingernails shamrock green. She quickly set us on the right path, recommending the fish and chips in Fanore as she sped off.

Emmy looked wistfully out the airplane window. “Let’s come back,” she said. It was the very first time she had ever said this at the conclusion of a walk.

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I reconnect with my heritage in the main street of Ballyvaughan.

At the Western Edge of Europe (1): The Cliffs of Moher

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Between Shannon Airport and the village of Liscannor, a roadside sign points to a trace of my Irish ancestry in the village of Quin.

It was my first visit to Ireland. Emmy and I went by taxi from Shannon Airport to the township Liscannor on the Atlantic coast about one hour away. We passed roadside signs pointing to the village of Quin. A strange feeling came over me. It wasn’t deja vue exactly, but rather a vague feeling of familiarity. Perhaps this is where my ancestors came from. I don’t know much about them except that they fled Ireland around 1870, initially settling in the lowlands of Scotland, then migrating to Canada and later to New Zealand where I was born. Quinn – with its variants Quin, O’Quinn, O’Coinn, Cuain, Cuinche and others – is a common Irish name found right across the island. It is especially common in County Clare where we saw it on several signs as we walked the Burren Way up the west coast. Unexpectedly, I found myself walking on what might have been my family’s ancient home ground.

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Quin Abbey in County Clare. This tumbledown ruin and me… we have a lot in common. (Google Earth image)

On the morning of July 22nd, with a blustery wind slapping at us from the chopped-up waters of the Atlantic Ocean, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out of Liscannor towards the southern end of the famous Cliffs of Moher. We were on a track called The Burren Way. Our destination for the day was the hamlet of Doolin, about twenty kilometres to the north. We walked into green pasturelands, criss-crossed by rough stone walls, that sloped down to a grey sea. Isolated white cottages crouched in the grass with beige-coated cows dotted around them. There were no trees, the roads were empty, and the homesteads too seemed deserted. We walked alone.

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The famous, windswept Cliffs of Moher.

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Emmy braces herself against the Atlantic wind with O’Brien’s Tower in the background.

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Rough slate walls helped protect us at the edge of the cliff.

Our walking poles came out early. We levered our way up a long, gravelly asphalt road towards a ruined stone tower – O’Brien’s Tower – standing high above the sea. From there, looking north we saw a series of steep dark headlands diving almost vertically into the sea. The path narrowed and veered towards the edge of the cliff. Far below, the white breakers of the Atlantic boiled against the rocky teeth of the cliff base. In some places big slabs of slate had been placed like a low wall between the path and the edge of the cliff. We had to wobble over at least half-a-dozen stone stiles.

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Stone stiles… my technique was to sprint up to the stile, leap high into the air, and soar over it in one youthful bound (as illustrated in this photo).

We met a few walkers coming south, and as we crept north more and more of them appeared. About twelve kilometres from our start-point in Liscannor – a bit over halfway through our walk to Doolin – the crowds thickened. Again and again we had to press ourselves against the side of the path to let them past. The path widened to accommodate a horde of day-trippers: howling toddlers in pushchairs, fat Americans wheezing and dipping into bags of potato crisps, teenagers daring one another to take selfies at the cliff’s edge, clusters of Spanish tourists talking among themselves earnestly, intently, rapidly and non-stop as they walked, indifferent to the natural spectacle around them.

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Teenage day-trippers dare one another on the cliff’s edge.

Then, in the distance, we saw where they were coming from: the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre (called, I’m sorry to report, “The Visitor Experience”). To keep it unobtrusive, the Irish authorities have hidden it under the flanks of a grassy hill. But the parking area cannot be hidden. Its hundreds of cars and buses glisten like a bright, ugly, constantly mutating melanoma on the green skin of the landscape.

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Like a melanoma on the skin of the landscape: the jam-packed parking area at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre. Note the crowds of day-trippers walking the edge of the cliff.

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. They bring in a clutter of mobile phones, baseball caps, over-sized sunglasses, and headphones whispering to the outside world the deafening thumps of music that fill the heads of their users. The cliffs are an interesting natural phenomenon, even spectacular in places, but most visitors scan them quickly, and with a curious indifference, before recording some photos and heading back to the Visitor Centre. The cliffs are a “celebrity location”, famous, above all, for being famous. You go there in order to say “I have been there.”

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. But modern mass tourism seems to do the opposite. It actually narrows the mind. It reduces, and tries to monopolise, options, flexibility and contact with local people. Travellers are whisked from site to site in buses or cars, given pre-digested “information” about each site, allowed photo-ops, then delivered to gift shops. This kind of travel is just another form of consumerism… you collect destinations and take them home in your mobile phone like selfies with sports stars and the autographs of media personalities.

What’s worse, because of tourism’s indifference to the celebrity locations it promotes, it ruthlessly exploits, and ultimately destroys, them. Mass tourism means getting close to the fame of a place – however fleetingly – without bothering yourself with the origins or meaning or authenticity of that fame. Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Jerusalem’s Old City, the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Louvre – hundreds more – have become unbearable ant-hills of people, offering little more than glimpses of history, or greatness, or beauty amid a relentless crush of people, and a litter of souvenir shops and fast food outlets. Tragically, this is what many tourists expect, even what they want.

If you like hiking – long distance walking – it is probably because you enjoy solitude. How can the travel industry sell solitude to a mass market? It can’t, of course, except by redefining solitude to mean lots of people, but fewer than at the Cliffs of Moher. So real solitude is deleted from the mind-broadening options offered by the travel industry, even as simultaneously they broadcast (or imply) the slogan “travel broadens the mind”.

But back to the Burren Way. At the end of a long day’s walking – a bit stressed by the necessity to walk some segments along narrow roads between thick blackberry hedges, mixing it with long lines of cars and tourist buses that filled the whole width of the road – we trudged into the tiny hamlet of Doolin, famous for the traditional Irish music of its pubs. And yes, that night, as we tucked into a rack of lamb in O’Connors Pub, we listened to a harp and bauzouki duo in one corner of the dining room playing a selection of gentle traditional melodies. My stress and annoyance at the Cliffs of Moher’s “visitor experience” melted away. The mashed potatoes tasted especially good with a pinch of salt and a knob of rich Irish butter on them.

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The tiny hamlet of Doolin, justly famous for the traditional Irish music played in its pubs. Our B&B accommodation was just past the left end of this strip of shops and pubs.

Burgundy in summer: We walk from Dijon to Beaune through the endless vineyards of the Cote d’Or

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Old buildings and narrow streets in the centre of Dijon.

Our first surprise was the city of Dijon. For me Dijon used to mean just one thing: mustard. Dijon mustard goes on your barbie snags (that’s “barbequed sausages” for readers unfamiliar with Aussie idioms). You can get it at Woolworths. What punishment could possibly fit this ignorance? Dijon, we discovered, is a picturesque, historic city. Its centre is crammed with beautiful buildings: palaces, museums, churches, creaky old residences reminiscent of England’s Tudor heritage. It is a meditative pleasure simply to stroll the criss-crossing, zig-zagging pedestrian walkways of the city centre.

We got a taste of Dijon’s old-world character at the Petit Tertre Hotel, our night’s accommodation. “Hotel” doesn’t quite cut it as a term for a dark maroon door in a wall. No signage, just a street number. Behind the door we rolled our suitcases down a dark, stone-walled corridor with several doors on the right leading into (presumably) apartments of local residents. We emerged into the sunlit floor of a square well with a patch of blue sky far above us and bicycles leaning against its walls. We disappeared into another stone-walled corridor to emerge from its dimness into a tiny courtyard with a short narrow, stone staircase climbing the side of one of its walls. At the head of the staircase we found our room. It was as eccentric a “hotel” room as one could wish for.

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The façade of our “hotel” in Dijon. Our comfortable, antique room was down two long stone-walled corridors behind that unassuming door.

In the centre of the room stood a dark, round, varnished dining table with a simple but exotic chandelier above it. Behind it was an upholstered chaise longue. Next to this stood a tall, antique, folding screen decorated with 18th century motifs. Partly hidden behind it was a bed heaped with cushions and blankets. At the foot of the bed stood the room’s piece de resistance, a “wardrobe” yet not a wardrobe. It was a 19th century traveller’s clothes trunk with huge hinges and iron latches. About a metre high, it stood on one end, its top-to-floor mouth partly prised open to reveal a space where clothes might be hung. Up some steep, rickety wooden stairs there was a mini-mezzanine loft with a double bed filling most of it under a gable-topped window looking out over slate-tiled roofs.

The next morning our host served us breakfast on the varnished dining table: deliciously flaky croissants, freshly baked bread rolls, jams and soft cheeses and fresh yoghurt. And of course, strong aromatic coffee. We were magnificently set up for a day’s walking.

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And here’s where we began… beside a statue of the “Bearers of the Great Grape” just outside Dijon. It encapsulates the all-consuming role that wine has in the culture of Burgundy.

Following instructions by Macs Adventure (https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-2231/burgundy-short-break-dijon-to-beaune) we were taken by taxi to the edge of Dijon where we started walking at a bronze statue labelled The bearers of the great grape. It was the morning of Monday July 16th 2019. Already the day was uncomfortably warm. Within hours, as we climbed up into the part-wooded slopes of the Cote d’Or, the temperature had topped 30 degrees. We looked out across a shimmering landscape of endless neatly combed, bright green ranks of grape vines punctured by spiky old churches, shuttered deserted villages, and turrets of the occasional chateau. We were walking on a surface that was part quiet country road, part asphalt path and part gravel track. We made sorties into hill-top woods with their crackling leaf-strewn tracks and shadows of cool. Macs Adventure had supplied detailed trail notes, maps and a mobile-phone app, and the route was reasonably well way-marked.

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Vines, villages and vistas… our Burgundy walk in a nutshell.

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Colourful ceramic tiles decorate many church spires in Burgundy.

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Exotic buildings dot the countryside. Our route passed close to this one, the Chateau Clos de Vougeot, near the village of Chambolle-Musigny. Centuries ago it was a Cistercian monastery producing wine that helped put Burgundy on the map as a centre of viticulture.

The end of a long day led us to the small town of Gevry-Chambertin. Tiny though it was, it seems every second shop was a “cave” – a cellar-shop selling wine. We dined in the evening warmth at the Chez Guy restaurant. When the proprietor asked: “And to drink, monsieur? What is your preference? Red or white?”

“Just water for us, thanks.”

His shock lasted less than a nano-second. Maintaining perfect courtesy in the face this foreign eccentricity he asked:

“Still or sparkling?”

Having tucked into a delicious fillet of Burgundy beef we sat in the quiet square opposite an old church with its bell clanking at quarter-hour intervals, sipping our austere ration of (still) water, and enjoying the long slow sigh of twilight as it breathed its warmth into the approaching night. I’m reluctant to say this, because it sounds so sentimental, but it was the perfect end to a perfect day’s walking.

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Emmy’s shadow stretches out beside her as we set off early in a futile attempt to avoid the 30 degree heat of the second day’s walk.

And Day Two was pretty much like Day One, only hotter. We left Gevry-Chambertin around eight o’clock in the morning, hoping to cover as much distance as possible in the cooler air of morning. And again, like riffling the pages of a souvenir calendar, we flashed past vineyards, turreted chateaux, church steeples ceramic-tiled in colourful patterns, villages with their shuttered town halls and their wine shops displaying sample bottles on upended barrels along the footpath. And this time, in the square of Nuit-Saint-Georges, I demolished an entree dish of six snails. The very ample lady at the next table made short work of sixteen.

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Snails for your entrée, monsieur? Mais oui!

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And roast duck to follow? With a glass of burgundy white? You bet!

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Our accommodation in Nuit-Saint-Georges was cramped to say the least. I couldn’t stand upright in the loft bedroom.

The idyll couldn’t last, of course. It came to an abrupt end on Day Three. Heading out of Nuit-Saint-Georges, we got lost. Twice. Our trail notes told us to look for a small forest path, but developers had been into the forest. Raw earth and smashed trees lay heaped where our path was supposed to be. We tried to peer over the debris and walk around it, but saw no sign of any path. Half an hour of poking around led us back to the edge of the forest. I looked down the valley slope, over the endless ranks of grape vines, to a country road a couple of kilometres below us. It was our way out. Half an hour later we were inching cautiously along the side of the narrow road toward the village of Ladoix-Sevigny where (our map told us) we could reconnect with our planned route.

And yes, we managed to do that. But after just fifteen minutes of trekking through vineyards we were lost again. Maybe the configuration of the vineyards had changed, or our trail notes were not precise enough, or (no… this cannot possibly be the reason) I had forgotten to recharge my mobile phone and couldn’t access the route on Mac’s online app. Whatever… we found ourselves trudging the streets of a small town looking for a landmark. We walked past a middle-aged lady chatting on the footpath to a young man on a motorbike.

“You are visitors!” she called to us good English. “Where are you going?”

“I’ve no idea where we are going,” I called back. “We’re lost!”

“Come into my garden,” she said. “I’ll explain everything.”

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Emmy with our “Dame du Chemin”, Sabine, in the back garden of her house in the village of Ladoix near Beaune.

She pressed a button on a handheld remote, and behind her, in a high, grey wall, a tall slab of iron creaked slowly open. She ushered us onto the back verandah of a grand old house set amid trees in a lush garden with a tennis court and a glassed-in swimming pool. Three big dogs bounded up – each dribbling over a stick or pine-cone – demanding to play. Big glasses of icy water appeared before us as Sabine, our new-found guardian angel, launched into an epic account of her family, her late husband’s business interests, her house, her children, and her dogs. An hour later, as she paused to draw breath, I glanced at my watch and, half-rising to my feet, murmured our thanks.

“Where are you going?” she asked in astonishment.

“We are walking to Beaune.”

“You certainly are not walking! I will take you there in my car!”

And that’s what happened. Not only did she drive us the last five kilometres to Beaune, she also took us to the nearby chapel of Our Lady of the Road (Notre Dame du Chemin) which has been part of her family’s heritage from ancient times. Half the chapel dates from the 11th century. This was followed by a tour around the streets of Beaune before we were delivered to our accommodation at Beaune’s Belle Epoque hotel.

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Sabine shows us the chapel of Our Lady of the Road (Notre Dame du Chemin).

That night, we drank a quiet toast of burgundy in thanks to Sabine, our dame du chemin. We were sitting in the Ecrit Vin restaurant (another family establishment recommended by Sabine) in the central square of Beaune, allowing the gentle rhythms of a jazz recital to wash over us from a nearby gazebo. Yet again we sank gratefully into the French institution of a long slow outdoor dinner, with long slow sips of wine, in the quiet warmth of a long slow summer twilight.

Have the French got it right? In Burgundy, in summer, yes, they have.

Postscript: A Perfect Stay with Friends in Charolles The following day we sailed south for an hour on a local train to the town of Macon where we were met by friends Lois Belton and Georges de Lucenay who live in the nearby town of Charolles, famous for its beef cattle. And again we luxuriated in the best of French hospitality: great food (I can still savour your Coronation Chicken, Lois), the warm quiet streets of Charolles, 17th century music from the town’s new church organ played with stately perfection by Lois, and a long, peaceful sleep under the 2nd floor roof of our friends’ big old house. Lois (originally from New Zealand) has adopted the splendid eccentricity of taking breakfast with a rook perched on her shoulder. Its intelligent, beady eye – like a guardian of all things Burgundian – kept a vigil over our meandering conversation and our slow enjoyment of croissants, local cheeses, local fresh eggs, and Georges’ delicious home-baked bread. It even forgave my swigging of Coca-Cola, a sin that must be kept secret in the wine country of Burgundy (wise bird!).

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Lois takes breakfast with her dark guardian…

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…before bringing to life the solemn faith of former times at the keyboard of the beautiful new organ in the town church of Charolles.

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Emmy and Lois  check out a chateau with its moat in the small town of La Clayette, near Charolles.

Next Post: we walk the wild Atlantic coast of county Clare in Ireland.

Germany’s Romantic Road (Second Half): Dinkelsbuhl to Nordlingen

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The view from our hotel window in Dinkelsbuhl, and below…

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… the hotel itself (centre) with an open-air café in front of it.

Dinkelsbuhl is a remarkable town. Its walled centre preserves an astonishing array of wide-fronted, multistorey houses with peaked, steeply raked roofs dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. They stand in packed ranks along the town’s narrow streets. Most are neatly painted in pastel colours – creamy yellow, light orange, beige, moss green. Some stand out in scarlet, lemon yellow or brilliant white. Outwardly they are beautifully maintained with few concessions to the 21st century, but behind the neat facades everything is impeccably hi-tech and modern.

Somehow Dinkelsbuhl avoids being Disney-tacky. The locals are not decked out in faux-medieval costumes. The streets are narrow and cobbled as they were 500 years ago, with, in some cases, houses leaning over and looking down into them, each successive floor overhanging the one beneath. Public signage is in German gothic script. The Brothaus bakery – where we twice feasted on sweet pastries and cake-like bread rolls – tells customers it has been doing business in the same spot since 1616. A soaring 16th century stone church – St.George’s Minster – stands at the hub of the town.

We took a tour of the town in a large roofed cart pulled by two giant horses. As the waggoner – who was also our guide – waited for his cart to fill with customers, from time to time he took a sip from a huge glass of beer, each time returning the glass to its storage place under his seat. Apparently the prohibition on drink-driving doesn’t apply to horse-and-cart drivers.

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The narrow streets of Dinkelsbuhl seen from a horse-drawn cart.

An unpleasant incident occurred during the tour. As we clopped at walking pace through a web of alleys our guide gave us a lively commentary in German. Emmy and I didn’t understand a word of it, but following his outstretched finger we saw exotic sights we might not otherwise have noticed. We enjoyed his eccentric personality and the flow of his patter, and we joined in the outbreaks of laughter from the mostly German-speaking passengers. But a bookish-looking, grey-haired gentleman hugging an English-language guidebook was looking resentful. About twenty minutes into the hour-long tour he suddenly shouted “Stop!” The waggoner put his foot on the brake pedal and called out “Brrrrrr” to the horses. In the middle of a narrow street, with cars queueing behind us, the gentleman with his entourage of three crinkly ladies got off. “It’s all in German!” he announced indignantly (in English) to the German passengers. The waggoner’s eyebrows resumed their place over his eyes, and with the smallest hint of a smile he snapped the reins. The horses clopped forward. It had been a tiny but telling glimpse of English-language arrogance.

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Our eccentric, beer-drinking and very personable waggoner-guide.

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The picturesque hamlet of Raustetten. Our accommodation at the Waldeck Hotel is the building visible at the left edge of the village.

The fifth day of the Romantische Strasse took us from the hamlet of Raustetten south of Dinkelsbuhl, over a succession of easy paths 20 kms into the ancient town of Nordlingen. Walking conditions were perfect, with cool temperatures and motionless air under a hazy sky.

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Easy walking on the morning of our last day…

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… but light rain joined us around 11:00 am and stayed with us for the rest of the day.

But around eleven o’clock small spots of rain began to tick against our faces. The hazy sky was still high and bright, but it cast a fine drizzle over us. We broke out our rain jackets and walked on, hunched under our backpacks like a couple of Quasimodos. The rain stayed with us until we reached the ancient, almost perfectly circular defensive wall around Nordlingen at three in the afternoon. We passed through an arched stone gate into the town’s glistening alleys. We had reached the end of the walk. We averaged 18 kilometres a day over five days.

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The religious piety of former times is visible everywhere along the road between Dinkelsbuhl and Nordlingen. Here a forest sign reminds walkers that “God preserves the wilds and woods.” Or is it an entreaty? “God, preserve the wilds and woods!”

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Here are just three of about a dozen wayside crucifixes on the path between Raustetten and Nordlingen. In the more secular 21st century, perhaps they are speaking to passing hikers. “You think you’re suffering? Look up here. You’ve got it easy, mate!”

Getting into Nordlingen was easy, but it proved hard to escape. The following day I went outside the town’s old walls to the railway station to buy tickets to our next destination, Zurich. The station was hard to find. Under a shroud of canvas behind temporary fencing, it was under reconstruction. It had been totally gutted. There was no ticket office behind the empty eyes of its windows. Amidst the scaffolding on the deserted platform stood an automatic ticket vending machine. Its instructions were all in German (abfahrt, fahrtkarten, bahnhof, gesamt) and I could not bring up Zurich on the screen. We trudged back into the centre of town and headed for the tourist information office.

“Can I go from Nordlingen to Zurich by train?”

The helpful matron behind the counter looked startled. She tapped at her computer.

“You can go by train from here to Aalen, then change to another train to Stuttgart, then change to another train to Singen, then change to another train to Zurich.”

I could see Emmy weighing our two big suitcases in her mind’s eye, then adding the heavy bulk of our backpacks. No way, she signalled to me.

The information officer looked at us with curiosity.

“Why don’t you just leave the same way you came?”

“We walked to Nordlingen from Rothenburg. It’s a long way. We’re not walking back!”

“You walked!?”

She was standing right beside a tall poster advertising the invigorating benefits of walking Germany’s Romantic Road. Evidently it was the first time she had seen a real Romantic Road walker. Perhaps she didn’t expect us to be grey-headed and wrinkled.

My solution was an expensive one. On Saturday, July 13th I hired a taxi to take us and our baggage the 100+ kilometres to Stuttgart Station where I was able to buy a train ticket direct to Zurich. Easy.

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Arrival in Nordlingen. Emmy is thriving, while that shrivelled creature in the background is definitely struggling.

Germany’s Romantic Road (First Half): Rothenburg to Dinkelsbuhl

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The exotic, beautifully preserved centre of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria, western Germany. Our accommodation was a short walk from this square.

Anxious prologue (written July 5th 2019 in Rothenburg ob der Tauber). I’m a bit apprehensive about this walk. Just behind my eyeballs there’s a nagging voice saying “Are you ready for this?” It has been grating at my brain with three unanswerable reasons not to do the walk. First, it says, old age is withering your muscles. You don’t have what it takes to go up and down hills. Yes, it’s true. It’s a rude fact, and I was reminded of it yesterday when we checked into our hotel after a long and complicated trip from Amman in Jordan. The Gerberhaus Hotel is a traditional establishment in a large, picturesque 16th century house not far from the centre of Rothenburg. We were assigned a room under the roof, up three flights of stairs from street-side reception. After four months in Israel, Emmy and I have accumulated stuff, and yes… it’s mostly useless stuff. My suitcase weighs 26 kilos and hers 23 kilos. We also have heavy backpacks. The Gerberhaus has no lift, nor staff to help with luggage. So yesterday I had to haul my 26 kg bag, step by painful step, up to our attic room. Then Emmy’s. How many times did I go up and down those three flights of stairs? Five times, I think, and each time the stairs stretched up higher and steeper. My stringy old muscles were definitely not up to it. I’m feeling fragile. (This afternoon, we’ll pack up all our excess stuff and send it back to Canberra by DHL’s courier service.)

That small, grating voice is also reminding me: “You’re not fit, are you!?” Six weeks ago, we did a four-day hike through northern Israel (see my four reports on The Jesus Trail). Since then I have hardly exercised at all. Jerusalem’s summer heat put a stop to my daily walk from our apartment in the suburb of Katamon to my office at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, a return distance of about five kilometres. I had to go by bus. I have lost condition. I can feel that my walking range – my stamina – has taken a big hit. And there’s no time now to build it up again little by little. We start walking the Romantic Road tomorrow with an initial hike of 16 kms.

Then there’s the weather. A week ago, Europe went through an unusual heatwave. Temperatures in parts of Germany sailed up over 40 degrees. I’m looking at my mobile phone right now: tomorrow’s maximum will be around 30 degrees. That’s too hot for two easily dehydrated old people who don’t have the strength or the stamina to carry a big load of water.

The prognosis doesn’t look good. We will walk tomorrow, but we are going to suffer.

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Emmy walks through an ancient gateway into the centre of Rothenburg town.

Report from Schillingsfurst, our first stop. As predicted, July 6th dawned dry and hot. As we walked out of Rothenburg at 9:00 a.m. the sun was already like a branding iron in the cloudless sky. Initially there wasn’t much shade. We walked through quiet fields of beige-yellow spelt-wheat and bright green corn. Luckily our trail notes (supplied by Macs Adventure: https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-1479/germanys-romantic-road ) were detailed and clear, and the trail markers along the route were frequent and clearly visible.

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Much of our route was on smooth minor roads through rich farmland.

But by the village of Bochenfeld, less than half-way through the day’s walk, attrition had climbed like a gorilla onto our shoulders. It was a relief to enter a stretch of shadowy woods and sit for half an hour on some fallen logs. We ate a little and drank a lot, enjoying the restorative quiet. Tiny waspish-looking flies traversed my outstretched legs, hovering like tiny helicopters on a reconnaissance mission over the ridges and gullies of my clothes, sniffing out my sunscreen lotion and salty sweat. There were a few lazy chirps in the trees, but otherwise all was silent. A church bell tolled from kilometres away, muffled in the heavy heat of late morning.

In the afternoon our stops became more frequent, but around 3:00 pm we managed to edge into the village of Schillingsfurst – wrapped in Saturday afternoon somnolence. From the terrace of our accommodation at the very welcoming Die Post Hotel, high on the slope of a valley, the countryside rolled out to the horizon: orange roofs of farmsteads amid a quilt of corn and wheat fields, belts of dark forest, small villages holding fast to the spikes of their church towers, high-tech ridge-top windmills slowly, gracefully waving their slender arms in the late afternoon breeze.

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A typical country hotel along the Romantic Road: our accommodation in Schillingsfurst.

It was a relief to reach our destination, but in a kind of mild delirium I made a mistake. I drank a big stein-mug of Bavarian beer, then at dinner devoured slabs of beef that (the publican told me proudly) had been marinated in rich red wine for six days, and followed it with an ice-cream dessert dressed in a high-octane liqueur. The combination of alcohol and dehydration triggered an attack of gout in my right big-toe joint. The following morning I was yelping in pain and limping. The day’s walk to Feuchtwangen – 22 kilometres – grinned at me in evil anticipation of my suffering.

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A selfie in the cool of the forest.

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Ouch! Ow! You can’t see my face, fortunately, but my gout-ridden toe is killing me.

Dear reader, I won’t impose on your reserves of sympathy with details of my agony. Anyway, I don’t remember much of the day… I was walking through a paracetamol induced fog. Somehow the kilometres crept past like ghosts. At least the temperature had fallen to around 20 degrees. As we walked unsteadily into Feuchtwangen I swore a solemn oath: never again any alcohol of any kind in any quantity during this month of walking. And… success! I have strictly observed the oath for a whole two days.

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After our hot first day of walking, we are religious about keeping well hydrated.

We have found the Germans we have met to be warm and friendly, tolerant of our practically non-existent command of German, and wonderfully ready to help. We had two examples of this as we left Feuchtwangen. I asked our hosts at the Karpfen Hotel to prepare two packed lunches for us to eat on the road the following day. As we checked out, our lunches were handed to us.

“How much?”

“Oh, no charge,” was the smiling reply. Inside each pack we found three freshly cut sandwiches (thick cheese and ham), a tomato and a boiled egg. Free! On the edge of town we stopped to buy water at an old mill that had been turned into a popular restaurant. The proprietor emerged with a big bottle of top-quality mineral water.

“How much?”

“Oh, no charge,” was the smiling reply. And we hadn’t even entered the restaurant!

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Just outside Feuchtwangen, the converted old mill where we were given free mineral water.

This earthy generosity lent wings to our feet. My painful toe had settled down, the rich green fields and shade-filled forests flashed past, and by three o’clock in the afternoon we were passing under Dinkelbuhl’s tall, red, medieval clock tower. Survival is a kind of success, and we had survived the first half of the walk. Time for a day’s break in the exotic surrounds of “Germany’s most beautiful old city”.

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On the outskirts of “The most beautiful old city in Germany”. (More on Dinkelsbuhl in the next post.)

 

The Jesus Trail, Day 4: Arbel to Capernaum, and home to Jerusalem through the West Bank

According to the Jesus Trail guidebook (Walking the Jesus Trail by Anna Dintaman and David Landis), the path from Arbel…

…follows the Israel Trail blazes on a steep but beautiful route down a cliff face. […] Be careful as you descend. There is a bridge with handholds in the rock to assist you in the steepest section. The path can be slippery when damp, and park authorities do not allow hikers to descend in wet weather.

This put the wind up us. We were not reassured by the history of the cliff. According to the historian Josephus in his Jewish War (written around 75 CE), the troops of Herod the Great winkled Jewish rebels out of their holes in the Arbel cliff “by lowering down his soldiers in large baskets on ropes to pull out the rebels, causing them to fall to their deaths.”

For us, clearly discretion was going to get the better of valour. Still suffering from the exhaustion of the previous day’s walk we decided to take a taxi from our overnight accommodation, past the cliff-face descent, down to the edge of the Sea of Galilee / Kinneret. Please forgive us, dear reader.

At the town of Tabgha we joined a throng of tourists and wide-eyed Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. According to all four Gospels, at Bethsaida, about seven kilometres north-east of modern Tabgha, Jesus turned two fishes and five loaves of bread into a meal sufficient for five thousand people. There was even food left over. (I’ve always wondered whether the fish was cooked or not. Did the 5,000 have to light fires and cook the fish, or was it miraculously already cooked when distributed. Just asking.)

In the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes visitors light candles before a Greek-style icon of Jesus. They also pray, prostrate themselves on the floor, and (of course) take photos. A picturesque, Byzantine-style mosaic representing fish and loaves lies stamped into the floor in front of the altar. The image has been turned into a hundred different souvenirs snapped up by tourists in the adjacent gift shop. We too invested. We bought the image on a set of table mats that (hopefully) will help us feel more thankful as we tuck into our regular meal of grilled salmon and bread rolls back in Canberra.

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A Byzantine-style fish and loaves image on the floor before the altar of the Church of the Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves in Tabgha.

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The faithful prostrate themselves on the floor before the altar.

No more than two hundred metres down the road stands the lakeside Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. It commemorates the moment recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 16 verses 16-18) when, after his resurrection, Jesus spoke to his friend and follower Simon Peter, telling him “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus was making a play on words. “Peter” is derived from the Greek word “petros” meaning “rock”. (Peter’s Aramaic name Cephas is also taken to mean “stone” or “rock”.)

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Hammering home the metaphor, a large rock fills the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, believed by many to be the first leader and the founding “rock” of the Christian church.

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A sign at the front door of the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. As a die-hard religious sceptic I interpret the sign to mean “This is a church, rational explanations have no place here… please, no thinking allowed, just have faith”.

The relentless crowds inside the beautiful but simple church have compelled real worshippers to shift outside. Under trees beside the church there is a small open-air chapel where we saw priests conducting a Catholic mass for a congregation of about 25 devotees. Nearby, visitors crowded a small, pebbly beach and looked out across the calm of Kinneret towards the Golan Heights on the opposite shore. Some removed their shoes to stand ankle-deep in the holy water, dextrously recording themselves with selfies as they did so.

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We have arrived. I stand outside the Church of St. Peter in Tabgha, and below…

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… Emmy stands on the pebbly shore of the Sea of Galilee, near where Jesus is said to have walked on water.

The final leg of our walk took us three kilometres along a picturesque, neatly paved, lakeside path to a park built around several small religious buildings on the long-abandoned site of Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), the village where Jesus is said to have based his ministry. We had reached the end of the 65 kilometre Jesus Trail. After subtracting the taxi rides in Nazareth on the first day, and Arbel on the last day, we had walked somewhere between 50 and 55 kilometres. We had seen much of the beauty and diversity of Israel, as well as its disturbing divisions. And our ancient bones, muscles and brains had survived the rigours of the walk. We felt pretty satisfied with that.

Postscript

Exhaustion was still clamped around our legs like manacles, so we decided to return to Jerusalem direct by taxi. Our driver took us around the northern curve of Kinneret and down the eastern shore, squeezing between the lake to the west and the beetling presence of the Golan Heights to the east. We went south through the town of Beit She’an and, unchecked, through a border crossing into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. We were on Highway 90, which is forbidden to Palestinians except with special permits. It runs the full length of the occupied West Bank. In the northern sector it sticks close to the Jordan River. The countryside left and right of the road has largely been de-populated (for “security reasons” say the Israelis). Ethnically cleansed is a more accurate term. The former population of Palestinian Arabs has been uprooted and shifted west, mostly to the major urban centres of Nablus, Ramallah and (further south) Hebron. In the northern sector the eerily empty landscape is filled with low hills of tawny grass, punctuated here and there with market gardens and plantations of dates, olives and bananas. In places there are derelict houses of the former Arab population, and once, we saw rows of stumps marking (according to our Jewish driver) a destroyed Palestinian olive grove. Here and there the highway passes squalid Bedouin communities, their tents filled with goats and surrounded by litter. The highway curves around the Palestinian town of Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea, and heads west into Jerusalem, passing signs pointing left and right to the prosperous Jewish settlements of Ma’ale Adumim. On this Jews/foreigners-only route, Palestinians are rendered almost invisible in their own land.

The occupied West Bank and Gaza are the conscience of Israel… and it is a very ugly sight.

The Jesus Trail, Day 3: Kibbutz Lavi to Moshav Arbel

We stepped from the friendly ambience of the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel into the mild warmth of a clear Thursday morning. Our path took us across the central installations of the kibbutz: chicken runs, cow sheds, a petrol station, yards full of agricultural machinery, stables, workshops, offices, staff houses…

We walked along a well-defined path into neat fields, curving towards the low prominence of the Horns of Hattin. The big hill has a couple of lumps in it like protrusions growing on the head of a young bull. Everywhere in Israel visitors are either ogling history or trampling over it. Here you can do both. In 1187 Crusader forces clashed with the Muslim army of Saladin in the open country under the Horns of Hattin, right where we were walking. Saladin routed the Crusaders, putting an end to European Christian power in the Levant until Napoleon turned up at the end of the 1700s.

We reached a T-junction in the path, with an innocently inviting turn to the left and an equally inviting wriggle of pathway to the right. Both options were marked with trail blazes, so we consulted our map. The path to the left looked shorter. No-brainer… we turned left.

A gently rising staircase took us upwards and around the contours of the hill. A vast panorama opened up beneath us: the distant white roofs of factories and glasshouses glinting in the sun, shimmering villages and townships, green and yellow fields, a busy highway with insect-like cars creeping along it. We gulped big breaths of clean air and stopped for a selfie or two. How good it was to walk free and strong with the world spread out below us.

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I pose on the heights between Lavi and Arbel, innocently (or arrogantly?) unaware that our old age is about to be tested on surfaces rougher than we’ve ever walked on before.

Hmmm… within an hour that sentimental froth had been whipped away from us. The path turned nasty. REALLY nasty. A trap snapped shut… there was no turning back. For the next four hours we had to struggle forward over the most difficult walking terrain we have ever encountered in the ten years of our walking careers. It wasn’t a long distance, but it was slow going and harrowing while it lasted.

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Here is our “path”. Yes, it is an “official” pathway. Note the trail marker on a rock bottom left.

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Emmy comes up a slope, balancing precariously on the rocky surface.

The track ascended and descended steeply, sometimes precipitously. Over considerable distances (at least it felt “considerable” to us) the surface was boulders and rocks. Not a “path” at all. Yet it was the path, marked at regular intervals with official trail markers. We couldn’t leap from boulder to boulder as young walkers might have done, or mountain goats. In places we had to wobble forward, inch by tiny inch, testing every step with our poles, maneuvering among the crevices, crawling, or sliding on our bums in places. Being old, we were fearful of a fall or a sprain. At one point I slipped on to my back between two rocks. I couldn’t fold my legs under me, or find support for my arms on the smooth surface of the stones. Emmy couldn’t get close enough to help. It took me five minutes to get upright. The combination of old age and boulders is not a good one.

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Maybe over that crest the path will smooth out and it will be easy going again. Totally alone, we had no help but hope.

When we emerged from the grass and stones above the village of Kfar Zeitim, we were aching, dehydrated and exhausted. In the distance we could see our destination, the hamlet of Moshav Arbel. Behind it, through a gash in the hills, we could also see the burnished steel of Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee.

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Kinneret visible in the distance, and our destination, Moshav Arbel, visible centre-right. We still have around two hours of walking (trudging? plodding? staggering?) ahead of us.

Another hour brought us to a highway leading east towards Arbel. As we drooped along the shoulder of the road a car skidded to a stop beside us.

“Need a lift?”

A miraculous flash of energy teleported us instantaneously into the car where we met Corinne, the young driver. In ten minutes she had whisked us to our accommodation at the Arbel Holiday Homes. We thanked her profusely, but we couldn’t find words to tell her how deep our gratitude really was. Corinne didn’t care. In the spirit of true generosity she simply gave us a cheery wave and drove off.

The proprietors of Arbel Holiday Homes, Ben Konowitz and his wife, greeted us warmly and ushered us to a simple but comfortable cabin. I started to tell Ben of our sufferings. With a glimmer of Jewish humour and the slightest of smiles, he waved my lament away.

“You’re walking the Jesus Trail,” he said gently. “You’re supposed to suffer.”