It’s not about the view…..

Well, not much anyway.  You can’t go walking in that patch of the Aude near la Digne d’Amont and not enjoy looking at those vineyards marching across to the snow-covered Pyrenees one way, and the equally distant (and almost equally snow-covered) Montagne Noir the other.

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Today though, let’s not have a travelogue.  Let’s look at one or two of the other things that caught our eye on today’s walk, sunny but oh-so-cold.  We began walking in temperatures of not much more than minus 5 degrees. There was the ice itself, underfoot.  The cold froze the mud and made it good and hard to walk on.


There were the frost-framed leaves mulching the ground.


There was a giggle-worthy notice on an electricity sub-station.


And in  the tiny village of Toureilles (population 143), there was a statue to its most famous son.  Pierre Bayle (1783-1794) was the youngest soldier ever to die for France.  A drummer boy in the Republican Army, he was engaged in the campaign to prevent the Spanish invade Roussillon, and died in battle at Figueres, aged 11.


As we left Toureilles, along a single track road , we came upon a rather fine, wide, but very short stretch of road, with a fine stretch of car park along its length.  It led only to a dusty track.If we didn’t know why it was there, neither did the villagers.  Here’s what they thought of it.

Back in Digne d’Amont, the municipal notice board had news of an evening’s Bingo (Loto) on – shucks, we’ve missed it – 16th November.  Prizes?  Two loads of wood for burning,  a whole pig (dead, of course) and a hamper of beef as well as other smaller prizes.


And at the end, Gilbert produced a cake for us to eat,  formerly much enjoyed locally and which he’d managed to find out about: amazérat, a pastry with a solid bite to it and strongly flavoured with aniseed.

Gilbert's amazérat
Gilbert’s amazérat

Harvest home…..

Fields near Villelongue.  A grey summer's morning.
Fields near Villelongue. A grey summer’s morning.

….. next month.

We were walking in the Aude today, and with every step we took, we realised that harvest season is well on its way.
Sorghum grains for animal feed swelled in fields where last year sunflowers had grown.  A few seeds had escaped the Autumn harvest, and so this year a few cheeky sunflowers raised their heads above the more lowly winter feed.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Grapes cluster  on the vine. They’ve grown almost as much as they intend, but they still have work to do.  Most are still a bright acidic green.  A few are starting to blush a bruised pink.  Some have even achieved a classic purple: but they’re not ripe yet.  We know.  We tried one or two.
And those fields of sunflowers,  Apart from one field’s worth, they no longer look like those cheerful images you see on postcards from our region.  Their bright sunny faces no longer track the movement of the sun as it travels across the sky.  Instead, they’ve developed a hang-dog look as the weight of their maturing seeds pulls their heads earthwards.
Then there were almonds.  We found a few had fallen already, so made a handful of creamy nuts into a small 11 o’clock treat.  Walnuts are a different matter. They’re still heavily enclosed in their thick green fleshy coats.  It’ll be a few weeks before this protection dries and splits to reveal the ripened nuts within.
Apples?  Yes, a few, but they’re still green, with white flesh that browns as soon as it’s bitten into.  Blackberries?  Hardly any have turned black.  They’re still very small and green, or rather small and pink.  We’ll have to wait.
So far then, only the hay bales sit plumply at the edges of the fields, ready for winter. The other crops soak up the remaining summer sunshine, fatten, ripen, and wait for the moment when they too will be gathered in.
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d'Aude
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d’Aude

Butterfly bonanza

I’ve never been all that good at butterfly spotting.  Back in the UK, I could manage my red admirals, peacock butterflies and cabbage whites.  Oh yes, I could certainly identify those pesky cabbage whites.  Their eggs were usually plastered over the undersides of nearly every vegetable I had on my allotment.

On Sunday though, we had a real butterfly bonanza.  We had a perfect day’s walking on the nearby Plateau de Sault, near Belcaire.  It was perfect because the scenery was friendly: gently rising and falling lightly forested slopes offered distant panoramas of the Pyrenees.  The wonderful weather was bright and sunny, without being too hot. The walk offered challenges but no real difficulty; good companionship too.  What made this Sunday memorable though were the butterflies.  At this altitude – about 1000 metres – the summer flowers were still bright and fresh, and the butterflies couldn’t leave them alone.  They fluttered ahead of us every step of the way, and we finally gave up exclaiming over their delicate beauty.

What we couldn’t do was identify them.  This evening I’ve pored over sites on the internet.  I’ve excitedly identified a specimen.  Then I’ve looked at the next image… and the next… and realised that my confident identification isn’t at all secure.  Tentatively, then, I’ve named my photos.  But I rely on you, dear reader, to put me right about the undoubted mistakes I’ve made.

In the end though, whether I’ve been able to name them or not, I carry with me the memory of a summer’s day made extra special by the presence of those butterflies  wheeling, turning, diving and fluttering, rarely still, but constantly engaging our admiration and attention

Fireworks at Puivert

Late on Wednesday afternoon we went to Puivert.  Why not? It’s a pretty town not far from here, with a beach beside a charming lake.  

When we arrived at 5 o’clock, the car park was already almost full.  We weren’t surprised.  Nobody was leaving the beach: in fact, like us, dozens of people were making tracks for it, burdened with swimming gear, beach towels, fold-up chairs, picnic hampers.
We were getting there early, to make sure of a grand-stand view. After the regular summer-Wednesday-evening market, there was going to be a firework display, and we knew it would be good.  We picked our spot under a tree and near the lake.  Nearby, a musician set up his stall, and his balladeering (think Simon and Garfunkel) helped while away the evening.  A spot of swimming (not for me, not this time) a spot of people watching, and soon it was time to think about food.  About half those market-traders had set up stoves and ovens and complicated gas-rings and were busy slicing, stirring, grilling, frying and baking to provide meals for the hundreds of us who planned to eat ‘sur place’ as the evening wore on and darkness fell.  What to choose. Local grilled meat?  Tapas? Pizza? Something salady?  Paella?  Something oriental?  Wandering round in a state of terminal indecision’s part of the fun.
We chose paella, Susie and I, our young companions went Chinese, and we all finished off with sheep’s milk ice-cream (rose petal’s very good, so’s speculoos).
Then it was time to move nearer the water, listen to the nearby singer and the croaking frogs, and wait for darkness.
I enjoy fireworks.  But about 10-15 minutes is usually enough.  There are only so many rockets and golden fountains you can exclaim over.  This though, was different.
As it became truly night, laser beams (‘testing, testing’) drew blue lines and beams across the darkness.  White smoke emerged from large pipes at the water’s edge, and billowed softly across the lake.  What on earth?
Then it began.  Laser beams drew architect’s plans in the sky.  These futuristic ‘buildings’ revealed clouds above them: ah!  That’s what the smoke was for.  And above them, orange and red firework fountains dripped from the sky, seen through the ‘ceilings’ and the clouds.  The laser drawings slipped and slid, plunged and dived, in an ever-changing palette of electric blues, citric greens, livid yellows and magenta.  The fireworks went relentlessly on, mirroring the insistent rhythms of dramatic, dynamic music which seemed to herald the Apocalypse.  I don’t know how to describe how utterly involving and exciting it was.  My camera – no camera – begins to do justice to that extraordinary marriage of lightshow and fireworks.
After 20 minutes, it stopped. Just like that.  We held our collective breath, utterly silent, hundreds of us.  And then we applauded, wildly, recognising the genius of what we’d just seen, and knowing that an encore simply wasn’t going to happen.  Not this year.
It was, quite simply, one of the most exciting and compelling spectacles I’ve seen.  Ever.

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Monks, marble, and a look-alike church

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Here in Laroque , we have a Commission du Patrimoine, attached to the town council.  It has many enthusiastic and knowledgeable members who seek to preserve, restore and celebrate certain historic buildings, who manage the municipal archives, who research (for instance) the history of the area’s farms and who organise exhibitions.  It has other members who are like me, frankly, free-loaders.  We trot along to meetings but have little expertise to offer.  But we were all in favour of the day out organised last Saturday.

We started off in Caunes-Minervois, a small town in the Aude.  Most of us associate the Minervois with wine production, and we’re not wrong.    I didn’t know though that near Caunes Minervois there are important marble quarries, worked since Roman times.  It seems half the important buildings in Paris sourced their marble there … the Louvre, les Invalides, l’Opéra…. and then there are Fontainebleu and Versailles too.   It rivals Carrara in importance and marble is quarried here still: many colours, but mainly a rather plummy pink.

We came though to visit the Benedictine Abbey.  There’s been an abbey here since 790, and though the Carolingian buildings have long gone, the crypt, with early sarcophagi, remains beneath the present church.  It’s a rotten site  for a church in many ways, prone to an excess of water immediately below ground, so the four Christian martyrs whose relics are venerated here are targets for prayer that drought should not strike.  Have devotees been praying just a little too fervently this year?

The Abbey has had a long and complex religious and political history which you can read about here. We started by visiting the 17th century cloisters, austere and simple, as befits a building used by the Benedictine order. Then there’s another vaulted room in the complex with an interesting feature. Stand in a corner and whisper your confession, and the sound will travel up to the roof, over and down the other side into the ear of the listening priest.  He will be able to offer you absolution by whispering from his corner, in the knowledge that if you are carrying the plague, or some other contagious disease he’s at a safe distance from you.  We all tried it.  It works – the whispering that is.

The abbey became simply a parish church at the time of the French Revolution. From outside, it’s a fine Romanesque and early Gothic building, in a spacious uncluttered setting – the buildings that used to huddle up to it have been removed.  Within, it’s a temple to the local marble, and to that of Carrara: there are even Italian statues owing something to the school of Michelangelo.  Much of the former monastery is now used as space for art exhibitions.

Then it was off to lunch.  Another treat.  Not far from the village is another small  church, Notre Dame du Cros.  It’s in a splendid setting, in a gorge surrounded by craggy rocks.  Stone tables and benches were there beneath the shady plane trees and we had one of those shared picnics the French do so well: home made apéritifs, home cured sausage, home made pies and cakes, home grown fruit, wine…..

And then it was time for the look-alike church.  Still in the Minervois, there’s another village, Puicheric.  Its parish church bears a remarkable resemblance to ours here in Laroque.  Hence our visit.  Puicheric’s church, though, has a more intimate, homely feel.  This turns out to be because during the 19th century, those responsible for the church at Laroque had delusions of grandeur, encouraged by the likes of Viollet-le-Duc who promoted Gothic architecture in buildings where such features had never previously existed.  The roof height was raised, at vast expense, to create a more ‘Gothic’ feel to the building.

Nevertheless, Notre-Dame de Puicheric has a claim to fame as a place of pilgrimage.  Back in 1700 a marble staue of the Madonna was being shipped from Italy along the Canal du Midi, past Puicheric, bound for some fine church in Aquitaine.  Once in Puicheric, the barge could go no further, detained by some irresistible force.  The statue was taken to the church, and there it remains to this day, an object of veneration.

And then there’s the château.  Laroque had a castle once too, and we still have the odd remaining bit of wall.  Simon de Montfort saw that off, as so many other things round here.  Puicheric’s still looks very imposing – from round the back.  From the other side, what you get is a rather splendid chambres d’hôtes.  It had an aristocratic past, though much of the original site was destroyed by our very own Black Prince in 1355.  It housed the nobility until the French Revolution and then passed into the hands of a family with whom it remained until 1990.  Now it’s the home and business of Dominica and Phillippe Gouze, who aim to offer modern hospitality whilst retaining all those elements from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and long before that which inform its character.  We were seduced by the garden, the views, the ancient tower with a faded fresco of someone doing something dreadful to a dragon, and by the story-telling powers of our host.

While we were there, we could have seen so much more, as clicking through the links would reveal.  But that will have to be for another day ….  or two ….. or three.

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June is the new May: a springtime nosegay

We’ve all had it.  Months and months of horrible weather.  Especially rain.  Even now, when things are slowly picking up here, we expect to have all kinds of weather within a single day.  Beautifully hot skin-warming sun may be followed by lashing winds, summer showers, or deluging  heavy downpours.  Glance up at the sky, and it will be in turn a cloudless azure, or bright blue patched with blowsy puffs of white cumulus.  Or it may be grey, or even black.  If the clouds aren’t coursing lazily across the heavens, they may be tearing across the sky so swiftly that they’ll have disappeared from view if you glance away only for a few moments.  The rivers are still full to overflowing.

June sky from Roquefixade
June sky from Roquefixade

Farmers are in a mess.  They’ve only just begun to cut their hay, when normally they’d be onto their second harvest.  Seeds have failed to germinate in the cold and wet.  Often they haven’t been planted at all in the sodden and waterlogged fields.  Preparations to take cattle and sheep up into the highland summer pastures have had to be postponed, with snow still on the ground at higher levels.

At last though, we walkers are once more getting out and about.  We choose our routes with care, because thick sticky mud has made some of our favourite walks unuseable.  Where we can walk though, spring has at last sprung. Familiar paths have become narrow passages edged by massed armies of knee-high grasses, shocking in their vibrant greenness.   And our favourite spring flowers that by now should be sun-shrivelled and long past their best romp across meadows and pastureland, and spread across their favourite sun-warmed stones.  Here are a few that we’ve enjoyed finding  in the last days and weeks.

UPDATE:  After she’d read this post, a kind friend, AnnA, wrote to a botanist friend of hers enlisting help in identifying the flowers I’ve shown.  Here’s some of what she said. Reading from the top, left to right:

2. Globulaire rampante – Globularia repens (Creeping Globularia)

3. Hélianthème – Helianthemum Alpestre (Alpine rock rose)

5.  Perhaps from the Linacée family.  She needs a photo of the leaves.  Watch this space

6.  Céphalanthère à longues feuilles – Cephalanthera longifolia (Sword-leaved Helleborine)

8. Oeillet – Dianthus – (Dianthus).  She needs more info. to help her be more precise.

She’s asked to see more of the leaves, and to be told as well where the flowers were found and at what altitude.  There’s such a lot to it.  I had no idea and am so grateful for all this help.

Vines at Villelongue & the martyrs of the mudslick

A winter walk near Villelongue d’Aude.  It’s vineyard country, and the vines are stark and bare just now, the countryside colours muted.  I’ll only tell two stories about the day, because the photos can do the rest.  One is about Sainte Barbe, whose chapel we visited at the end of the day.  The other is about how she failed to protect us when we were in the precincts of her chapel.

Sainte Barbe lived round about the 8th century.  Her father Dioscore, a local dignitary, seems to have been a somewhat strict and unbending man.  He had a tower built to imprison his daughter, to protect her from the advances of handsome young suitors. Once, he went away, and she took advantage of his absence to make a third window in her prison tower, to commemorate the Holy Trinity.  Well, that’s the story.

Her father returned, and in a fury, denounced her to the local prefect.  Then he tortured her and decapitated her with his own hands.  But as he returned home, he got his come-uppance.  He was struck by lightning and carbonised.

Barbe was canonised and is ready to protect you, if you ask her, from flames and lightning strikes.  Nowadays she’s a patron saint too – of fire-fighters, miners, and bomb disposal experts.  And she has this chapel near Villelongue where we made our own pilgrimage.

Well, despite the fine weather the other day, the ground there is still waterlogged.  As Anny discovered when she came to try to drive off as we left the chapel.  Her wheels stuck.  They spun dizzily round.  They embedded themselves deeper and deeper into the mud.  We all gathered vine clippings to give the mud-slathered wheels better purchase.  We pushed.  Malcolm got caught by a pulsing stream of mud ejected by the spinning wheels.  We pushed some more, and eventually, had success.  We grumbled a great deal at Sainte Barbe, because she didn’t help us at all.  I think she was a little unfair.  If we’d been stuck there much longer, I think we’d have called out the fire brigade, and then, surely, she’d have to have helped.

Bugarach: ‘Doomsday Destination’

Cold.  Pale thin fog baffles the contours of the hillsides, and those of the distant castle at Coustassa.  Glimmering frost bristles the short maquis grass beneath our feet.  A watered lemony sun high above us attempts to burn winter away, and eventually does so.

That’s when we have our first view of Bugarach, the imposing thick-set mountain which dominates this part of the Aude, because it stands alone, rather than as part of a range, and today is pretty much thatched in snow.

Bugarach has been in the news for a while.  Here’s BBC’s ‘From our Own correspondent’ back in July 2011:

‘According to an ancient Mayan calendar, at some point towards the end of 2012, the world will come to an end.

It is not clear how that will happen, but apparently humanity does not stand a chance – except for those who seek shelter in the area surrounding Bugarach.

Just 200 people live there all year round, but doomsday believers and spiritual groups are convinced the village has magical powers, thanks to the local mountain – the Pic de Bugarach.

For years, rumours have circulated on the internet that extra-terrestrials live in the mountain, and come the apocalypse, the top will open and they will emerge with spaceships, and rescue the local inhabitants.’

Although it’s quite hard to entertain the idea that the mountain might be some sort of underground UFO car park, there are plenty of people who have done so, and with great fervour.  Here’s today’s Daily Mail, which has been talking to Jean-Pierre Delord, Mayor of the tiny village of Bugarach (pop. 176).

‘On Wednesday, he will close the village for five days to anyone who doesn’t live here or isn’t already booked to stay, and draft in hundreds of police, military, firemen and Red Cross to ban any gatherings, shut off the mountain and arrest anyone silly enough to try flying over it.

‘What if tens of thousands of people turn up?’ he says, throwing his arms up in the air. ‘I have no way of knowing what will happen. I have no crystal ball! I don’t care if people want to chant naked or talk to the trees, but I have to protect my villagers. I am responsible for them.’’

He’s not over-reacting.  Local house-owners have been able to rent out their homes for the period in question for astronomical prices, and even camping spots are going for 400 euros a night.  For most locals though, the whole thing is at best a nuisance, at worst a real headache.  The nearer we get to December 21st, the more people descend on the area, and the police and army are already involved in keeping order.

We enjoyed our views of Bugarach, as ever.  We spent time pretending to look for UFOs and generally mocking the New-Agers who are so convinced by the end of the world as we know it.  Then we got on with the business of enjoying our walk in the here-and-now.  Here are some photos of our day.

A very English Sunday walk

If you go on a walk near Limoux in the Aude at this time of year, you’re entitled to scenery like this:

Vineyards near Villar -St-Anselme

In our walking group here in Laroque we all take turns to organise the weekly outings.  And this week, it was the two of us, the only English, who were in charge. We decided on an autumn walk among the vines round Saint Polycarpe, near Limoux.  The weather forecast wasn’t great, but the rain promised to hold off till 3 o’clock.  But no.  English leaders, English weather. Think of us plodding through the mud as the rain increased in intensity, long long before 3 o’clock arrived.  Everyone blamed us, of course.  They think this is the only kind of weather we know, back in England.

It all began so well….

Above Saint Polycarpe, 10.00 this morning.

Lunch was early, at Gardie, but we didn’t beat the rain.  We had our break in the bus shelter, for goodness sake, and got togged up like this immediately after.

The clouds descend…..

And the gloom.

Can’t see much.

Saint Polycarpe’s down there somewhere…

Still, nobody complained.  We got our fresh air and exercise, and our friends had a thoroughly good time holding us responsible for the rain and mud.

PS.  Dangermouse update.  We caught him last week.  He is no more.  He was a rat.  Eurghhhhh.