Le Jardin Extraordinaire: a late summer treat

In this most dreadful of weeks for British politics, I think we all need a distraction. Just now, this is it. Back in France, one of the regular pleasures of our late summer was a visit to Le Jardin Extraordinaire, open for just a few days every year as the holiday period drew to an end. Let’s go there now, courtesy of a post I wrote in 2013 …..

September 4th, 2013

Le Jardin Extraordinaire, 2013 version

Le Jardin Extraordinaire is always comfortingly familiar, yet always surprising. If you’ve been once, you’ll go again, on this one weekend of the year, to enjoy strolling round this very special wild, yet bewitchingly tamed garden. The members and volunteers of Artchoum have been working for months to create this space, just for your pleasure.

You’ll want to explore the riverside walk and exclaim at the enchanted place they’ve created with stones, trees and flower petals. You’ll go on to wander through the leafy tunnels and arches tumbling with gourds. Then you’ll amble off into the woods, where more fantastical experiences await you.

People come from miles around to explore, smile and wonder at this very special place. But although you won’t be alone, there’s a relaxing feeling of space and of peace too. You’ll go away refreshed, invigorated and joyful.

Click on any image to view full size.

An entry for Jo’s Monday Walk. It’s an old walk Jo. But sometimes the old ones are the best. And I hadn’t ‘met’ you then.

How Not to Run a Cycling Race

Shock!  Horror!  Unheard of!  Today we could be found (a) watching day time television and (b) it was a cycling programme.

Today’s daytime TV.

The Tour de France, to be exact.  Normally we only display an interest in this or any other cycling event if it passes our front door: as it did twice when we lived in France, and once, in 2014, when memorably, the Tour began in Yorkshire.

The Tour de France goes through Laroque, 2012

Today however, stage 15 of this year’s Tour took place in the area we called home, the Ariège.  We had to watch.  The struggles of the cyclists passed us by as we grew nostalgic, even damp-eyed as familiar roads, familiar landscapes appeared on screen.

But as I watched, I was reminded of an incident that took place in Laroque, back in 2012.

Every year, just before the Tour, another cycling race takes place in the Ariège: L’Ariégeoise.  It’s divided into three levels of difficulty: the Ariégeoise itself (160 km,3,500 m. of climbing), the Mountagnole (118 km, 2,500 m. of climbing) and for wimps, the Passejade, a mere 68 km, and 750 m. of climbing.

That year, the route passed our way.  That year, the routes of the two main races parted company in Laroque.  And that year, there were no signs to say so….  and nor were there special marshalls for the Mountagnards.

The unsuspecting riders arrive at the parting of the ways….

As the riders arrived at the crossroads in town , they didn’t know where to go.  Ariégeoises  followed MountagnardsMountagnards followed Ariégeoises.  It was hopeless.  Riders tried to turn round, collided with those behind them, swore, and swore again as they saw their hard-won perfect timings being swallowed up in the chaos.  With extraordinary presence of mind, I shot some video footage.

 

I heard later that following the event, the race organisers used my little clip for  training purposes, to demonstrate How Not To Organise a Cycling Event.  I’m guessing it’s part of every year’s Tour de France training too.  That’s why it always runs so smoothly.

You can read all about it here.

Tabariane: New Light on the Dark Ages revisited

Which of my posts about our time in France to re-blog this month?  In the end, it was easy.  I fell to thinking about all the wonderful trips we had learning about the history of the area we’d chosen as our home, courtesy of  Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares.  Here’s a memorable day from July six years ago…

July 13th 2013

Tabariane: new light on the Dark Ages

When I was at school (back in the Dark Ages), we learnt in history that the Romans came after the Greeks.  They left us a legacy of Romance languages, our alphabet, Roman law, neo-Classical architecture, impossibly straight roads and under floor central heating.  As the empire crumbled, so we were told, the continent descended into the Dark Ages.  Barbarians, Vandals, and unpleasantly savage descendants of Asterix the Gaul ravaged Europe, raping, pillaging and generally leaving little time for culture and a settled everyday life.

I think we all knew it was a bit less straightforward than that.  The Frankish Germanic tribes entering the late Roman empire had a very different culture from that developed by the Romans, and it’s been much harder to research systematically because there are few contemporary written records.

This week though, we went to visit a Merovingian site, Tabariane, recently excavated and interpreted near Teilhet, not far from Mirepoix.  The Merovingians were an early Frankish dynasty established by Clovis, and they ruled an area roughly equivalent to much of France and Germany from the 5th to the 8th centuries, and are the kind of tribe that was dismissed as one of those from the very heart of the Dark Ages.

It was a burial site we’d come to see.  It has first been discovered in the very early 20th century by Captain Henri Maurel, and had been partly excavated according to the fairly invasive practices of the period.  War and economic upheaval meant the site became first neglected, and then entirely forgotten about until recently.

Recent research lead by Nicolas Portet has meant that the burial ground, now carefully excavated, is now, as it almost certainly was then, a burial garden.  It’s a large site, on a hillside overlooking the site of the now disappeared Merovingian settlement  on the opposite side of the valley.  The 166 tombs seem to have been arranged in ‘clans’: loose arrangements of extended families and friends, over a long period of time.  It seems to have been a burial ground which held a place in the life of the community for many years, rather than being a cemetery developed as a result of tragedy – war or plague say.  Most of the bodies were laid with their heads to the west, their feet to the east.  Originally they were clothed, but little remained apart from metal objects: belt buckles, brooches, jewellery and, with some of the men, weapons.

This is where ideas have changed. Early 20th century archaeologists sent excavated objects to museums far and wide, even to America: modern practice which encourages an area’s ‘patrimoine’ (heritage) to remain as far as possible intact did not then exist, but you can find examples of objects found here in the Museum at Mazères, and in Saint Raymond de Toulouse.

Now as then, the tombs are planted with local flowering plants: lavenders, marguerites, herbs.  It’s thought that locals would have visited the grounds with their families, spent time there, as we might in a modern park.  So it was important to both the living and the dead to make it a pleasant, calm place to be.  The burial ground overlooked the village. The village overlooked the burial ground.  Each had an interest in the other.  Each could intercede for the other.

It’s a tranquil, special place, surrounded by meadows and hilly countryside.  A circular walk of some two and a half kilometres , starting and ending in the village of Teilhet gives you a chance to spend a peaceful  hour or two exploring scenery that may not be so very different from the way it was when the Merovingian villagers first laid out their burial ground, some 800 years ago.  Excellent information boards will help you understand a little more about those Merovingian people who made their lives in this still rural area.

While you’re there, make time to enjoy the facade of the 14th century church at Teilhet.  Here are some pictures to whet your appetite.

 

A bonus post for the Summer Solstice

Generally, we don’t make much of a thing of the Summer Solstice: we simply mourn that the day after, the days start getting shorter again.

But when I was looking for a post-from-the-past to reblog for June, I came across this one, and was reminded of a Special Summer Solstice.  Montségur, for the uninitiated, is a startling tump of a mountain celebrated as one of the last strongholds of the Cathars, a mediaeval Christian sect.  It’s a potent landmark in the Ariège.

June 21st, 2011

Summer solstice, Montségur

All this time we’ve been here, we’ve not seen the sunrise over Montségur.  Today, midsummer day, I decided to change all that.  Me and 99 others……

I arrived at the car park just after 5 o’clock,  at the same moment as a hare which had for at least two frantic minutes been trying to out-run me.  And I realised I was not alone.  It was still dark, and quite a difficult business to trek up a steep, slippery rocky path.  Other more provident people had torches, and everybody helped one another.

The route to the top. Still pretty dark.

Towards the top, the night sky was slowly washed from inky blue to delicate blues, pinks and greens by the sun which was still well below the horizon.

I found a couple of friends there, and a vantage point relatively distant from the crowd crammed into the castle ruins.  They had come to see something special – the rays of the sun as they poured through the ruined windows.  I decided it was too packed with people to feel special in there.  I’ll come back another day soon, to see for myself.

What I saw was quite wonderful enough: a rich copper disk slowly mounted above the line of mountains in the distance,  tinting the sky ochre, rusty-red, sugar-pink, finally emerging so fiery bright I could no longer look at it.  Some locals burst – quite beautifully – into song.   Occitan/Ariègeois stalwarts, ‘Quand lo Boièr ven de laurar…’ and, inevitably, ‘Se Canto’.

Gradually the whole sky lightened and brightened, turning the entire landscape crisply clear.  I strolled round the summit – it was surprisingly easy to get-away-from-it-all, before skidding and climbing my way down to the car park again….

Montségur casts a shadow on the hillsides beyond. The car park’s still full.

….and there were my companions who’d provided torchlight.  They were hitching, because their car had failed to start.  We journeyed back to civilisation together, ready to resume normal service.  It was 7.30 a.m.

Almost deserted again, Montségur in the early morning light

Revisiting our Lizards

It’s that time of the month: the time when I reblog a post from our years in France.  This time, I’m celebrating our much-missed garden friends the lizards. I do wish they’d consider a move to North Yorkshire, if only because back in 2012, I had nowhere near mastered the art of getting a decent photo of them.

June 27th 2012

‘I am the lizard king. I can do anything.’ *

Summer’s arrived: well, this week anyway.  So from before breakfast until long after the evening meal we’re spending as much time as we can out in the garden.  And we have plenty of company.  Lizards.  Common wall lizards, podarcis muralis.  They are indeed spectacularly common here.  We have no idea exactly where they live, but there are plenty who call our garden ‘home’.  We’re beginning to get to know a few.

Easily the most identifiable is Ms. Forktail, she of the two tails.  She’s the only one we’ve been able to sex conclusively as well, because we caught her ‘in flagrante’ with Mr. Big behind the gas bottles recently.  And then the next day she was making eyes at a younger, lither specimen, and the day after that it was someone else.  She’s lowering the moral tone of our back yard.

Then there’s Longstump, who’s lost a tiny portion of tail, and Mr. Stumpy, who hasn’t got one at all, though it seems not to bother him.  Redthroat has a patch of crimson under her chin.  There are several youngsters who zip around with enthusiasm and incredible speed.

Longstump

In fact they all divide their time between sitting motionless for many minutes on end, and suddenly accelerating, at top speed and usually for no apparent reason, from one end of the garden to the other, or vertically up the wall that supports our young wisteria. On hot days like this  (36 degrees and counting) they’ll seem to be waving at us.  Really they’re just cooling a foot, sizzled on the hot wood or concrete.  Sometimes you’ll see them chomping their way through some insect they’ve hunted, but often they’ll step carelessly and without interest over an ant or other miniature creepy-crawly in their path.

Mainly they ignore one another, but sometimes there are tussles.  These may end with an uneasy standoff, or with the two concerned knotted briefly together in what could scarcely be described as an act of love.

Happy hour for Longstump

We could spend hours watching them, and sometimes we do.  But there is still a bathroom to build, a workroom to fit out, and a pergola to design.  The kings and queens of the yard have no such worries.  They can do anything: they choose not to.

‘Our’ lizards on their personal sunloungers.

*Jim Morrison, 2008

On the path of Cathar shepherds – revisited

This is the last entry in my re-blogging season.  I’ve enjoyed browsing through my memories: this was why I created my blog in the first place – as a diary and travel journal.  I think that I’ll continue to re-post, maybe once a month, to allow memories to resurface, and perhaps give them a fresh audience.

This particular walk is one we’ll never forget, ever.

2nd April 2012

On the path of Cathar shepherds

Yesterday we walked through Montaillou.  It might seem a tiny and unremarkable village now, but it’s the place that’s maybe done most to contribute to our understanding of turn-of-the-14th century village life in the Languedoc when religious strife between the Catholics and the Cathars was at its height.  This is a big subject: it deserves more than passing mention: a future blog maybe.

I’d read le Roy Ladurie’s book on Montaillou more than 30 years ago,and never dreamed that I might one day live in what the tourist offices are pleased to call ‘Cathar Country’.  So it was the shepherds of Montaillou I was thinking of as we began our Sunday walk.  They would come to the annual fair at Laroque d’Olmes, a good 40 km from where they lived.  They would drive their flocks long distances for good pasture, and as national boundaries meant little in these mountain zones, their fellow shepherds whom they met in their travels would sometimes be Spanish.

First view of Montaillou.

We too were climbing out of Montaillou.  The paths seemed unchanged through the centuries – short springy turf with early spring flowers pushing through. Pale pink and white blossoms busting open.  Narrow streams cutting deep channels through the turf.  Thick forest climbing the slopes.  Patches of snow made the going a bit tough from time to time.  It was warm and sunny, the slopes were steep and sometimes hard-going.

Ever upwards…and the snow’s still on the ground.

Then suddenly…suddenly, and so unexpectedly, we reached the top of our first climb.  Around us, to east, south and west were the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees, glistening white against the blue sky.  Above us, skylarks called and swooped.

Later, Danielle remarked that she felt as if at that moment she’d received a special gift: that perfect view, the clean clear air, the singing birds which were the only sounds.  She voiced, I think, what we all felt.

We hadn’t reached our highest point: we climbed onwards, always with those snow-capped mountains at our side.  And then we were on top: handy rocks provided seats and shelves and we unwrapped and shared our lunches, lingering in the sun, drinking in the views for well over an hour.

The perfect picnic spot.

 

Ready to start walking again.

Soon after lunch, we turned our back on the snowy mountains.  As we faced the hotter, drier Pyrénées Orientales, the equally high peaks there weren’t covered in white.  Our path was downwards now, and soon we had to pass the ski station above Camurac.  Built long after those years when snow could be relied upon throughout the winter, it was an area of scalped earth, snow machines and all-but-redundant chair lifts.  My Montaillou shepherds certainly wouldn’t have recognised it.

The walk draws to a close.

But then it was forested paths again, open pasture and spring flowers.  We finished the walk passing a collection of horses, Thelwell style ponies, and appropriately for Palm Sunday, a couple of friendly donkeys.  A good day.

Friendly donkeys.

Omelette de Pâques revisited

It’s Easter weekend.  For my continuing re-blogging festival, an Easter themed post seems in order.  Let’s try this one from 2010…..

April 2010

Omelette de Pâques

Come to the Ariège on Easter Monday, and you won’t be too far from a community omelette. Communes and clubs all over the department seek out their biggest frying pan, get hold of dozens of eggs, sugar and rum, to make this sweet confection to round off, with any luck, the first barbecue of the season. Why? Nobody in our walking group could tell me, and Google wasn’t much help, but it does seem to be an ancient tradition dating back to….ooh, 1973 at least.

Anyway, the Rando del’Aubo have made this an annual event for some years now. For the last couple, it’s been rainy and cold. Not this year though. Down at the bottom of the page, you’ll find a few pictures of our walk between La Pène, an Audois hamlet on a delightful small lake, and Monthaut, which is a hill….higher up. It was a great way to work up an appetite.

Because the weather was warm, sunny and spring-like, we relaxed at the lakeside after our walk, chatting and enjoying those woodsmokey smells of a barbecue coming to life. Apéros first: Muscat, suze, pernod, whisky…all the usual French tipples, with nibbles to stem our hunger. Then grilled pork, grilled Toulouse sausage, bread (and wine of course), Coulommiers cheese, vanilla or chocolate pudding. And then we still had to find room for the all-important omelette.

Since the beginning of time, it’s been Marie-Therèse’s ‘job’ (good French word, that) to make the omelette, and of course it all ended in noisy recriminations because there were too many cooks all muscling in, breaking eggs, beating eggs, heating the pan, greasing the pan, measuring the rum. Half the raw egg mixture tipped out onto the grass, and Etienne and Danielle dashed off to every farm they could find to buy another….. 4 dozen.

Finally, it was done. Really, this omelette is scrambled egg with lots of sugar chucked in at the end, and flambéed with rum. Once a year is quite enough.

It wasn’t the end of the party though. Oh no. We couldn’t go before downing glasses of Blanquette de Limoux, an Alpine eau-de-vie, then cups of coffee (with madeleines, in case we were still hungry). And as a final touch, Easter eggs.

We came away suntanned and rather full, at the end of an Easter Monday that was one of the first really hot and sunny days of the year. A taste of things to come?

 

My contribution to today’s Ragtag Challenge: egg.

And a Malcolm update:  He’s out of hospital now with lots of medication and check-up appointments.  Looking good!