(Here is an except from Corporate Woman Magazine 2003 on the first humble origins of my company, ´Pyrenean Experience’). Re-edited in 2016.
The Humble Origins of the Pyrenean Experience
At 34, I left my Danish lover, determined to make a few changes in my life: firstly my sense of direction – I had always intended to move south, not north; secondly, to unite two passions: language and mountains – neither of which being particularly spectacular in Copenhagen!
Having written my first book, ‘Freedom to Choose’, encouraging others to reach for their dreams, it seemed cowardly not to put my theories to the test. So, in 1999, I flew to Madrid with walking boots and pocket dictionary. There I hired a car and headed for the hills. The dream – to run language and walking holidays in the Pyrenees. The objective – to find the place where it would all begin.Today, I write this article from my Pyrenean mountain cottage, (Iaulin Borda), the log fire alight and an autumn winds raining chestnuts on the house. I have climbed the steepest slopes of my life, those of the learning curve, and now have a small, successful walking company which has featured in the International Press and on Spanish and Basque TV. (We have also received the Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence 2016 and been awarded Unique Tour Operator of the Year 2017 for Spain by the Luxury Travel Magazine).
The Tabby Cat by the Fire
I had a budget of £5000, was a fair-weather walker, had no experience of the travel industry whatsoever, little knowledge of Spain and even less of the language. The closest I had come to ´language activity’ holidays was on a husky-drawn Eskimo sledge in Greenland where I taught English verbs to an Inuit woman at -20 degrees!
Undoubtedly, my primary resource at this time was the dream and I had a clear tangible picture of what I wanted to do. In my opinion it is as much a lack of focus as lack of desire that prevents people from pursuing their dreams. Even if many of the details change along the way it is vitally important to visualise the dream, to see the farmhouse in the Pyrenees, to feel and smell the mountain air, to colour the carpet red and put a cat – a tabby cat – a fat tabby cat – by the fire. (Well the cats, Snowflake and Blackie, are black and white – but the adjective ‘fat’ still applies!).
The Man on the Train.
I believe our greatest asset is people. And I don’t mean just the obvious contacts. I also mean mum, the postman and the man on the train. I talked to everyone, sounded out opinions, asked innumerable questions and was amazed by how much everyone had to offer: a previous experience, a telephone number, a web address, a friend of a friend, a shoulder to cry on – a glass of wine. And I gleaned my information and fortified myself with words of encouragement and wisdom.
“Always confirm your information from at least two independent sources” Dave Nutt, former Commando leader, when I’d got stranded in a bog on a map-reading course in Wales.
“There is nothing magical about business – business is just the sum of its parts”. Barry Penney, on a somewhat balmier night in Australia.
And so I made a list of the parts. 1. Go to Spain. 2. Head for the Pyrenees 3. Rent a farmhouse 4. Explore walks. 5.Take photos. Then with Winnie-the-Pooh like simplicity I booked a ticket, bought a camera, map, walking boots and Spanish / English dictionary and headed for the Pyrenees.
Belly Dancers and Ecologists
Of courses, it was not that simple. I didn’t speak Spanish, the walks were unmarked, the maps old and impressionistic and the house required a huge deposit. However, my Italian was vaguely adaptable, farmers on tractors lifted me from the brambles and Maria Louisa was happy to rent the house on a handshake. (See the article on the Basque Code of Honour).
If I had known what was ahead I would probably never have started. But I didn’t and so I did. I trudged the streets of London and Madrid with a plastic bag of home-made fliers (printed with the help of Russel, my parents’ Football Pools man), and religiously ticked off each point on my activity list. I pitted mind, heart and sinew, wrath and tears at every obstacle I my path.
Think creatively, laterally, diagonally, bloody-mindedly. Be passionate, persistent and above all – be patient.
In summer 1999 Fred, my Ford Escort, and I headed south again with a boot full of language books, tea bags and pretty cushions to run a ‘bi-cultural Spanish / English house party’ in a rental house in the Baztan Valley for four participants. Now I have up to 100 guests a year at my own beautiful Pyrenean farmhouse and walk the hills with people from all around the world. Doctors, builders, belly-dancers and ecologists – lawyers, anthropologists, cooks and farmers – who turn every evening into a wonderful meeting of minds!
However, one thought has always haunted me. What would happen if, after all, I did fail? How – and with what – could I replace my dream? Perhaps, if I had found the answer I wouldn’t be living in the Pyrenees today!