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Thursday 25th July 2019

I wake up to the sound of messages arriving, one of them from university friend Antony, someone I haven’t heard from for a long time. I can’t get back to sleep so I go out onto the terrace to say the Rosary.

Just as I am finishing there is a knock at the door. It is Pietro. Although it is not his habit to call into the B&B at this time of day, he has come to say goodbye and see us off on our adventure, which I find very touching.  He wishes us luck and off we go to Termini to take the train to Fiumicino. The airport express train is excellent, manned by an affable, heavily-tattooed conductor with long ginger hair tied back in a pony-tail. He looks like an archetypal Scot and I am half surprised when he starts speaking in Italian with a Roman accent. At the Easyjet bagdrop desk in Fiumicino, we ask the friendly lady if I can carry my wooden hiking stick on board the plane. I have been told by the Easyjet helpline that I can take it on providing that I remove the metal point, which I have duly done. The lady explains that, as far as Easyjet are concerned, there are no problems. Security, however, might well take a dimmer view and she advises us to go and speak with a security guard first. We do. The guard tells us that security will not let the stick pass as it could well be used as a weapon, metal point or no. We return to bagdrop where the lady checks the stick in for no extra charge, explaining that airlines and security often have different policies that can cause confusion and inconvenience to passengers. “Silly, isn’t it?” Indeed it is, but certainly not her fault. 

Toulouse is a revelation. I had always imagined the place to be grey and industrial, like a French Birmingham or Turin, but how wrong I was! What a lovely, lovely town! I am immediately sorry that we are only going to be here one night. We are too late for the hop-on-hop-off bus, much to my disappointment, but we take a short tour around the centre on foot and snap a few photos. I decide that, sooner or later, I am gong to book a week-long break here. I had been on Trip Advisor before our departure and made a list of possible restaurants for dinner, but as we walk along the river, we come across a place called “Pecheurs de Sable”. It is bathed in a reddish, late-evening light and happy-looking people are chilling out on the terrace eating good things and drinking glasses of foaming red beer.

We decide that this is where we’re going to have dinner. It is a good choice and we cram our bellies with generous plates of charcuterie, terrines, grilled peppers, olives, fresh bread, etc. not to mention some absolutely delicious beer; all the things that make France France. Walking back along the banks of the Garonne, we are impressed by the sheer number of people enjoying the early-summer late-evening sun. The banks are packed and yet the atmosphere is laid-back and amiable with none of the undertones of potential violence that you find in other places, despite the fact that people are drinking abundantly. 

We get lost on the way back to the hotel and stand on a street corner trying to make sense of a thoroughly inadequate map. Almost immediately, a beautiful blond girl of about nineteen and her olive-skinned beau stop to offer their assistance. I try to reply in French but, to my embarrassment, although I can still understand most of what I hear, I find I am incapable of replying. It may be the effect of my beer-goggles but I have fallen in love with this blond soap-and-water beauty and with this gorgeous town. Her boyfriend smiles smugly at me, as well he might, God bless him! We finally make it back to the Hotel Ibis and sleep deeply. Toulouse, I thank you for your hospitality. We salute you and we will be back! 

Music: Sex Pistols – Filthy Lucre Live

Audiobook: Charles Dickens – Pictures from Italy

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