The Principality of the Brothers Grimm. And Stone Soup.

Sunday. We went to Nébias in the Aude. Just outside the village, you’ll find The Labyrinthe Verte, a natural maze, with winding pathways through a forest, where rocks and plants have created a bewildering array of natural passageways which are both beautiful and fun to explore. These paths are cut deep through limestone, often shoulder height.  Somehow, we’ve never visited.  But today, thanks to the Rando del’Aubo, our walking group, we did.

It’s been a lovely bright spring day today, but the forested labyrinth is never really sunny.  Trees, their trunks and branches bearded with feathery fronds of moss and lichen, crowd the limestone crags and fissured passageways.  Deprived of light and space, they assume crippled and fanciful shapes, or else aim straight for the sun, their thin trunks competing with each other for a place to establish their roots.  It’s not eerie however.  On this warm March day, we wouldn’t have been surprised to meet an ethereal band of fairies whirling through the dampened glades: on a bad night in November, perhaps a gnarled and wicked hag from the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Every time of year has its own magic apparently.  On the coldest days of winter, the mosses and lichens are white and crisp with frost, making the forest fit for a Snow Queen

At lunch time, since we were in France and eating’s important, the darkened passages unexpectedly cleared.  Suddenly, beneath blue skies and bright sunshine there was a fissured limestone pavement, providing surfaces and seating for our lunchtime picnic.  Which Malcolm didn’t have with him.  The members of the group magicked their very own version of Stone Soup for him.  A mustardy ham baguette, some home cured sausage, a chunk of bread, a chocolate pudding, and apple….within half a minute, Malcolm had more food then the rest of the group put together.

The afternoon was different.  Walking away from the enchanting and enchanted labyrinth, we came to more open country, where we passed first farmland, then the edges of forest with tracks showing where wildboar and deer had recently passed.  Finally, we climbed, and had views across to the mountains and the walks we’ve enjoyed there on other Sunday rambles, finishing up listening to the lively splashing of a waterfall.

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No snow yesterday: mountain views and a Benedictine abbey

Distant Pyrénées. Not my photo, not the view we saw. But you get the idea
Distant Pyrénées. Not my photo, not the view we saw. But you get the idea

I gather that the last thing anyone in England needs right now is someone chirruping about how beautiful the snow is.  Well, here in the foothills of the Pyrénées, we’ve been almost alone in France in being a snow-free zone.  But please note: ‘the foothills’. The mountain tops have been covered for some weeks, and over the last week, the snow levels have crept down..and down…and ever nearer. And it’s quite simply beautiful.

Distant Pyrénées

Yesterday we went walking in the Lauragais.  That’s a gentle, verdant region north of here on the edge of la Montagne Noir.  Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the walk we had here, through sandy woodland paths, crunchy with fallen leaves, were the views across to the Pyrénées: mile after mile of distant peaks blanketed in blue-white snow beneath a bluer sky.  If only my camera began to do justice to this impressive sight.

A misericord to support a monkish bottom
Abbaye de Saint Papoul
Abbaye de Saint Papoul

Healthily exercised, we came down to the village of Saint Papoul, and looked round the Benedictine Abbey of the same name.  I found myself lingering in the 14th century cloisters and in the abbey itself, inspecting the misericords, the small decorated wooden shelves hidden under the seats to provide a bit of support for the poor monks as they stood for long hours during their religious devotions.

The Flight into Egypt

Perhaps the most enjoyable bit of our visit was a chance to look at the special exhibition devoted to le Maître de Cabestany, a Romanesque sculptor who seems to have left his mark on many of the pilgrimage churches on the route from Rome to Compostella.

The infant Jesus takes a bath

His figures, despite their realism, their chunky hands and elongated eyes, seem to have a slightly supernatural feel to them and they were fun to explore and enjoy.

It was cold though.  Snow threatened, but didn’t fall in the end.  We decided against a mooch round the village: probably something to do in the future, and scurried back home to toast our toes and fingers

The weathered pillars of the cloisters, and their equally weathered capitals

Espezel, Potatoes and the Plateau de Sault

Waiting for horses to enter the ring. The fair at Espezel gets under way

If you live round here, you’ll know about the Plateau de Sault.  It’s where the potatoes come from.

Plateau de Sault potatoes. Plenty more where they came from.

They’re very proud of their potatoes.  They’re also proud of their country fair, la Foire Départementale de l’Elevage, held at Espezel.  Though this fair, held in October each year, is less about potatoes, and more about animals, as the name suggests.

A show tail for a show horse

Working horses, bulls with a reputation, Jack-of-all-trades Tarascon sheep, sheepdogs, pigs, rabbits and chickens were all there, together with state of the art tractors and farm machinery.

We could have bought this fellow: but we couldn’t raise the money

There were food stalls, clothing stalls, catch-penny stalls: plenty to keep us busy. Gill and David, our guests from England, who are County Fair Connoisseurs and stalwarts of shows all over Yorkshire, spent their time eyeing up horses – particularly the heavy, working Castillon horses, while we enjoyed the working sheepdogs.

The Australian sheep dog rounds up his sheep

As in England, most sheepdogs are border collies, but some are Australian sheepdogs, crossed with dingos.  They might look fierce – the sheep certainly think so – but they’re gentle and tractable, and do the business.

Oh, and on the way there, we had a piece of luck.  We got held up, and it was a traffic jam we really didn’t mind.  On the road to L’Aiguillon, a slow moving car with a sign reading ‘Transhumance’ flagged us down. Dozens of cows were being brought down to their lowland home from their summer pasture, and a score of cowherds and hangers on accompanied them on their long walk from Comus on the Plateau de Sault, to Mirepoix.  That’s a 50 km. journey, but they probably didn’t walk it all.  They’d have hitched a lift in a cattle transporter for at least part of the way, more than likely.  We however, saw the picturesque procession, and it began our day on a suitably bucolic note.

Cows plodding off to their winter quarters

Terre Rouge – Ciel Bleu

Whenever we think we’re beginning to know the areas near home quite well, something comes along to surprise us.

Take Couiza, for instance, a town in the Aude that has been the centre point for quite a few of our walks.  It can offer, within easy reach of the town, a typical Audois landscape which is almost Tuscan, with rolling hills vineyards and cypresses. Or craggy, scrubby garrigue, almost Spanish looking. Or there’s le Domaine de l’Eau Salee, which I blogged about previously, where the streams are pink with salt washed from the earth, and have been exploited by man for centuries.

Yesterday, however, we went with le Rando del’Aubo to Terre Rouge, an area near Couiza which astonished us with the rich red colour of the earth which dominated the landscape.

It supports a rich variety of plant life which is just springing into flower: Tiny daffodils, less than 3 inches high, bright yellow potentilla, grape hyacinths.  Bluish grasses bind the dry and sometimes sandy earth, and the air is rich with the strong scent of various wild thymes and lavender.


This red earth is all-encompassing.  And then suddenly, it stops. And we’re back again among more pallid yellowish soils, enjoying views of the distant Pyrenees, and the mountain which dominates this part of the world, Bugarach.

The walk was on the hottest day of the year so far, with clear, vivid blue sky.  We shed jumpers, long trousers, and our pasty winter skin turned the colour of that red earth. There was a wide shallow stream at the village where our walk began and ended, and a few of us enjoyed a paddle.  I greatly contributed to the end-of-day bonhomie by falling in…….

Just before the splash....

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?


The Big Snow: Chapter 3


Sunday, March 7th. Malcolm and I go for a walk in the Aude, near Limoux.  The day is full of the promise of spring, bright and sunny.  The almond blossom is out.  We spot baby lizards darting along stone walls, and enjoy watching more lizards sunning themselves on the rocky ledge where we have our midday picnic.

Monday, March 8th. We wake up to snow.  And more snow.  It was snowing as we got up, and it continues to snow, hour after hour.  We watch the flowerpots in the yard as their hats of snow become taller and taller.  By mid-afternoon, they’re 24 cm. high, and by 7 o’clock, as it begins to get dark, they’re about 28 cm. high. Up on the roof, the icicles become stouter and as long as the snow is deep. The trees stand stiff and silent under their heavy bonnets of snow.  The snow continues to fall as we close the shutters at nightfall. TV news reminds us that we’ve has it easy – look at the deep drifts, and hundreds of stranded lorries backed up in the Pyrénées Orientales!

Today, Tuesday March 9th – no more snow falling- but it’s not ready to melt either.  The wind snatches the snow from the trees, and when we leave the house, slaps our faces with flurries of flakes whipped from the rooftops.  The birds are constantly busy at our ‘Resto du Coeur’, and we replenish their feeders several times.  Gym?  Cancelled.  Choir?  Cancelled

As I still haven’t got my camera, the snowy photos on this blog come to you courtesy of my friend Marianne, who’s been busy with her camera as she and Réglisse, her dog, slip and skate round the chilly streets of le Peyrat, just down the road from Laroque.  Thanks, Marianne!

Suddenly, earlier today, I remembered this ditty the children and I used to chant when they were small:

Whether the weather be cold,

Or whether the weather be hot

We’ll weather the weather

Whatever the weather

Whether we like it or not

A walk in the Aude

Last Sunday, we went off as usual with our walking group, Rando de l’Aubo.  We went a mere 20 km eastwards into the neighbouring Aude.  What a difference a few miles makes.  The rugged forests, with hillside pasture for cattle and sheep, fields of maize and feed crops in our own department are exchanged for an almost Tuscan landscape, with little hillside towns overlooking ranks and ranks of vineyards delineating the contours.  Both departments are lovely, but we hicks from the Ariège tend to prefer our less manicured and somewhat wilder countryside.

Still, Sunday’s walk was quite a sentimental journey for Malcolm and for me, because we walked through the village, Ferran, that was our first introduction to this part of the world.

A few years ago, an old friend of Malcolm’s sent him an email.  In his letter, he said that it was February, and he’d been sitting outside in his shirtsleeves, gazing out at his perennial view of the distant Pyrenees, at that time covered with bluish-white snow.  Did we fancy a visit to him in Ferran?  We did.  We were of course seduced by those hillside towns, those vineyards, and especially by those views of the Pyrenees.  Not too long after, we came over again, to house hunt, and of course didn’t find that elusive, perfect spot.  Only after we’d returned home did our friend’s wife, who’s an estate agent, spot the possibility that we just might like the butcher’s house in Laroque where we now live.

It was crazy really. We bought it without really knowing the first thing about the area.  But we’ve never regretted it.  We’ll never finish exploring the hillside pathways, always deeply mulched with fallen oak and beech leaves, or the craggier routes up mountainsides, or the gently undulating lower paths through meadowlands, bright with orchids and other flowers, as well as butterflies, throughout the spring and summer.


But that’s the Ariège.  Ferran and the other villages we skirted last Sunday are typical of the Aude.  Colour washed houses and farms in shades of barley, corn and almond perch high on the hillside, looking down over their vineyards, and beyond – one way to the Montagne Noire, the other to the Pyrenees.  The hills roll away into the distance, not so blanketed by forest as our hills are, but at this time of year, green and lush. Though we only walked about 13 km, by the end we were exhausted, because throughout the day we’d been buffeted by the winds for which the Aude is known. But how lucky we are to have two such very different kinds of countryside within such easy reach of our homes.

St. Barthelemy seen from near Ferran

As I’m still camera-less, thanks to Jean-Noël, Michel and Anny for letting me use their photos from this walk, and a recent one near Donazac, also in the Aude

A visit to Fontfroide

Yesterday, the day here in Laroque started with the threat of snow, finally realised this morning.  But with our Rando group, we set off for the brighter if bracing Corbières.

The Corbières are of course well known for wine production.  As our mini-bus reached the area, we saw no cows, sheep, donkeys…or any animals at all.  What we did see was acre after acre of vineyards, along the narrow plains, scrambling up the hillsides, with each Domaine favouring a different style of pruning, from the wild and wiry abundance of tendrils clearly being left alone till the spring, to almost knobbly stumps sticking bare out of the ground, scalped of any living shoot.

The Abbey, as we first saw it

Walking here is so very different from the Ariège.  The scrubby garrigue, so reminiscent of Spain, is covered in tough herbs such as rosemary and thyme, tiny wiry green oak trees with richly burnished brown acorns, and olive trees.  The soil is sandy, shot through with red ferruginous deposits.  There were views of the sea, of distant castles, and of the monastery we’d come to see, Fontfroide. We loved it as a change, but this scenery simply seemed lacking in the variety that our own patch offers – map reading was a nightmare, so we’ll stick with it as a holiday destination, we think.  Still, our trek was invigorating in the bright winter sunshine, and it was a good way to spend the morning before an afternoon devoted to cultural matters.

The elegant courtyard, once the scene of manual labour

The Abbey of Fontfroide was founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1093 and affiliated with the Cistercians in 1145.  It began its history then, as a Romanesque gem, though it was added to in Gothic, Romanesque and elegant 17th and 18th times.  It’s been privately owned since it ceased to be a monastery in 1901, and in this last century, accomplished craftspeople have continued to restore and add to it.  Quite simply, it is an architectural gem.

It looks old - but it's Catalan and early 20th century

Right from its early days, the monastery flourished and soon became a centre of orthodoxy.  The murder in 1208 of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk and legate to Pope Innocent III, led to the Albigensian Crusade, which is such a living part of our history over here, at nearby Montségur.  After peace was restored, construction on Fontfroide Abbey continued. The influence of the abbey soon dominated the entire region, all the way to Catalonia, and a daughter monastery was founded in Poblet.  After the Black Death, the monastery had a chequered history, but it always escaped physical damage, and was often added to and improved with taste and elegance.  Nowadays, it’s almost unique among Cistercian abbeys in being in such wonderful condition.

The cloisters

The Abbey of Fontfroide is an excellent example of the kind of monastic town prescribed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in which the buildings and surrounding gardens and land contain everything necessary for simple living. The monks devoted themselves to hard work and worship, and had no contact with the lay people who worked there too, physically separated from the monastic community.  This is only apparent now whenpointed out, but despite the Abbey now being in private hands, many ecclesiastical references remain, especially in the cloisters and church.  If you ever have the opportunity, do visit this very special place.