Que de chemin parcouru

The trail seemed easy enough. The hotel offered a free shuttle ride up to the start of the three-hour walk along ‘Levada Nova’.

Levadas are the irrigation channels that carry water down to the seaside towns from the top of the mountains on Madeira. We were visiting the Portuguese island for an extended anniversary weekend, a mini holiday that we take every year around this time. The weather was perfect: spring-like temperatures with a few clouds and a bit of fine rain. Walking along the levadas is a popular activity for visitors to the island.

I was wary of getting in over my head, though. The Frenchman I married all those years ago is far more at ease than I am at altitude; he skis and climbs and can keep going forever. I figured we should start small and see how we went. So we chose the easiest trail.

It started out well. The paths were fairly narrow but flanked by lush vegetation of all kinds on both sides. Madeira was once the world sugar cane capital but these days bananas are the more lucrative crop.

But it quickly got a lot scarier. The narrow path edged along the mountain side with a fairly sheer drop just centimetres away in many places. Where it was steepest, there were barriers — stakes with ropes attached – which provided at least psychological support.

I had to fight my fear of heights to keep going. Coupled with my challenged sense of balance ever since I had inner ear surgery several years ago, the fear of taking a wrong step had me seriously considering walking in the irrigation ditch, lower and away from the edge. But it would have meant slowing down and soaking my feet, so I slogged it out. I was too afraid to stop and take photos of the steepest parts. You’ll have to take my word for it: it was impressive.

We didn’t have a map but had been told the path was clearly marked. No one said anything about a tunnel. Did I mention I also have a fear of the dark, of both open and closed spaces? Basically I am a mess. I thought the man I married thirty-odd years ago would have known this by now.

Reaching the tunnel, I balked. Then ensued a scene not dissimilar to many others we have navigated over the years together.

“No way am I doing this. Are they out of their freaking minds? It’s pitch black in there. Why didn’t they give us torches?”

“Don’t worry, your eyes will adjust.”

“Mine won’t. Wait, I’m going to use my phone flashlight.”

“But you can see light at the end.”

“No I can’t, you’re blocking it.”

“All right, then, just let me step aside…” There was a splash and my scream echoed through the tunnel as I turned my phone light and saw him struggling to right himself from where he had fallen into the ditch.

“Oh, god, are you okay? You could have broken your ankle!”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, just get moving.”

I walked as quickly as possible without running in the dark, as the speck of light at the end of the tunnel grew bigger.

We emerged on the other side to a gorgeous waterfall with another sheer drop. I collapsed on a rock. He looked at me and shook his head.

“You’re not your daughter’s father!”

I cracked up. “No, that would be biologically impossible.”

But he was right: I’m my mother’s daughter, not my father’s. My dad is the adventurous one, the guy who goes kite surfing at the age of 86. My late mother’s idea of sport went no further than the dance floor.

I inherited her fear of heights, of enclosed spaces, of flying, of fear itself. I also got her eyes, some of her kindness and a lot of her sensitive soul. Sadly I did not get her ability to cut a rug. From my dad I got a love of the outdoors and some of the exercise gene. Just not at altitude.

We continued on, through gorgeous vistas. Fifteen minutes past the tunnel, he couldn’t find his sunglasses.

“Where did you have them last?”

“On my head.”

“Right. They probably fell off in the tunnel.”

“I’m going back for them. You wait here.”

I put my foot down. I may have even stamped it.

“No way! There is no guarantee you’ll even find them. And I’m not going to wait here for half an hour worrying while you go and look. We’ll buy new ones.”

He was not happy. I reminded him that if we had made it this far together it was because we both knew when to pick our battles and when to cut our losses. We moved on.

A short while later, the path disappeared. We stopped at a fence where it had been washed away. Some other hikers confirmed that the steps we had passed some ways back led down to a different levada, one that would lead us back to the hotel.

On reflection I suppose that marriage is like that trail. Sometimes it is dizzying, and sometimes there are dark passages where you can’t see the light. But you just keep walking, a step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. You keep the faith. And suddenly you realize how far you have come. Que de chemin parcouru.

Happy anniversary, mon amour!

One of the last sightings of the sunglasses…

 

Droit de passage

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There is a law in France that stipulates that private property owners must guarantee a ‘droit de passage’ – right of way – to the public who wish to access the waterfront bordering their property. ‘La loi littoral’ states that a band of 3.25 meters must be accessible along the shore to allow people to walk along the water’s edge.

The law is not always enforced, but it seems that in our corner of Lake Geneva, there has been a recent movement to ensure access. So it is that we set out on Sunday on one of the sacred rituals of French life – la promenade du dimanche. A walk along the lake to discover if what we had heard was true.

Our village, like most small towns in France, publishes a quarterly newsletter. It always starts with a short editorial from Madame la Maire, usually a lecture on how we all need to be better citizens (less wasteful, more law-abiding). This pontificating annoys me but presumably not the French: it seems they are like school children who expect to be told off by the teacher.

The recent edition contained a short mention that it was now possible to walk along the lake all the way from our village to the scenic town of Nernier. Une belle balade, it said, to be enjoyed by one and all.

As soon as I read this, off I went to look for the path; predictably, I could find no trace of it. This generally happens any time I try to explore new territory in France. Husband is much better at finding his way so this time we went together. We both enjoy the outdoors and had set ourselves the goal of doing more fun things together.

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Down we went to the port des pêcheurs on Sunday morning and still found no trace of where to begin our walk. There is a wall with a few metal steps leading up to a concrete dock area but this is part of (presumably) the fisherman’s yard. There is no sign indicating anything. We peered around but seeing no one, did not dare to enter. So we went around the property to a small path that seemed to lead in our direction. This soon ended in a field which led us up and away from the lake. The only way to get back to the waterfront was to cut through a rather muddy farm field, which we did, taking large pieces of the field with us as souvenirs stuck to our shoes. We ended up back by the lake and began walking along the shore. This was so overgrown as to be barely passable in spots. We ducked to avoid branches and stepped over wet stones, trying not to slip. Eventually a path of sorts emerged, with small signs for hikers.

Along the way we observed many old properties that were either abandoned, windows boarded up and no signs of life, or simply shuttered for the season. Some of these were magnificent old houses fallen to ruin; others more recent with high fences and more money than taste put into creating Disney-like landscaping.

The lake was calm and beautiful in the soft light of early spring. Swans and ducks circled peacefully. There were no boats or signs of human activity on the water, although we did pass several other people out walking.

I wondered how this happened? High waters? Natural erosion?

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All along the waterfront we observed a strange kind of algae, which had dried to a sort of white vermicelli. It was everywhere.

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One couple we spoke to said that the reason you had to start from the fishing port in our village is that the private property around the Château is closed off to the public. Hmm. A rule for the plebs and another for the nobility? I think I’ll suggest that to Madame la Maire as a subject for her next editorial.

Still, it was a beautiful walk and fun to discover so much of the unseen side of the lake.

Do you have a favourite Sunday stroll?