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.

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.

 

May Day

I find it sad that May Day isn’t really A Thing in the UK.  Even the early-in-the-month Bank Holiday is relegated to the first Monday of May, diluting its significance to that of merely a day off.

When we lived in France it was far more important.  It was a day off work of course, because it was the all important Fête du Travail. No shops (apart from bakers and neighbourhood shops, just for a few hours).  No garages. No newspapers.  Only essential workers turned up for duty.

But the streets were quite busy, because May 1st is the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented.  In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent the previous day gathering and tying into pretty posies.  It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).

I used to ask people the origin of this tradition.  Nobody knew.  ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged.  But my friend Léonce had a couple of stories to tell.  We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume.  The nightingale notices and smells them coming into flower on the first day of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing.  And those bell shaped flowers?  Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.

Lilies of the Valley in our garden in France, one rainy May Day.

Just to prove though that at least one place in England celebrates May Day:  here are the choristers of Magdalen College Oxford greeting the day at 6.00 a.m. as they do every year on this date.  And the whole of Oxford joins in the fun.

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!

Driving again…

Since  my reblogging of a seven-year-old post seemed to go down quite well at the weekend, I’ve decided to have a short season of re-blogged posts, mainly because time is at a premium, but also because I’m enjoying looking at these Blasts From the Past.  Malcolm’s doing alright – he’s been moved to James Cook Hospital, at the wrong end of the horrible A19.  Tests and possible treatment today.

In the end, choosing a post for today was easy.  My number one activity this last week has been driving.  To the hospital.  From the hospital.  And repeat.  How pleasant it would have been to have been able to make use of a Gracious Aire.

May 2012

Gracious aires

One of the pleasures of motorway driving in France is the chance to have a sustained break in one of the aires, or service areas.  Not the run-of-the-mill petrol station plus eatery and shop. They have those too.  As in England, they offer the chance to eat indifferent food at over-the-odds prices, and to spend a small fortune if you’ve been unlucky enough to need to tank up there.

No, in France, roughly every other service area is all but unserviced.  There are parking spaces, toilets, a telephone, and not much else: nowhere to spend money, in any case.  There may be a children’s play space set among trees, and perhaps picnic benches.  And that is their charm.  They’re generously sized areas, set well away from traffic noise, and offer a real chance to get away from the stress of a long drive with a relaxing walk in the woods or a picnic in the shade.

Perhaps my favourite is on the southbound carriageway of the A20 in the Limousin.  I first stopped by chance at L’Aire de la Coulerouze when I was driving down alone to Laroque a few years ago.

Earlier that day, I had picked up the makings of a picnic at the market at Levroux.  I’d got bread, and a young goats’ cheese.  I’d bought fresh apple juice from some nuns who had a stall, and an apricot producer had sold me a couple each of every apricot variety he grew so I could have my own personal taste-test session.

Down by the riverside at Coulerouze

At Coulerouze, I found picnic tables and was about to settle myself down when I noticed wooden steps leading downwards.  There at the bottom was a bridge over a small river all but encircling a small wooded glade, with a single bench under an apple tree.  The only sounds were the birds singing, and the river tumbling along its path.  I spread out my lunch and relaxed.   Afterwards, I found there was a path.

The signpost to the path

It took me first of all along the river, and then along fields and hedgerows.  The walk wasn’t a long one, but it was all I needed to forget the many miles I’d already driven that day, and the four or five hours driving that still awaited.

Not all these aires are quite so special.  There are some horrors near Rouen.  But find a good one, and it’ll become a treasured destination, somewhere to aim for with pleasure on a long day’s driving.

It feels almost impertinent to post a jolly little story from our time in France on a day when Paris, when France and the whole world is mourning the loss of Notre Dame de Paris.  My own sorrow is that, unbelievably, I’d never visited this cathedral.  And now I never can.

 

Les demoiselles de Caraybat, daffodils and gentians: revisited

This hasn’t been a week for writing for fun, as while I was having a good day in London on Monday, Malcolm ended up dialling 999, and is now in Harrogate Hospital after a heart attack. I wasn’t told until well on the way home, which may have been as well, as there was nothing I could have done. He’s awaiting transfer to the much bigger James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough. But there’s every reason to assume that all will be well.

So I’ve picked out this post from six years ago, from our days in the French Pyrenees to re-blog. Who doesn’t love a good yarn, spring flowers and spectacular views? It cheered me up, anyway.

April 2013

Les demoiselles de Caraybat, daffodils and gentians

Once upon a time long ago in Caraybat, when times were hard, the men of this small village had to look far afield for work.  And they went to Spain, for the hay-making season.  Hawkers came to the village, and pedlars.  They found a village with no men.  They took advantage.  So did the women.

When the hay-making season was over, the men returned, and the women spied them returning over the distant mountains.  Suddenly ashamed and frightened, they fled to the hills.  God, in vengeful and Old Testament mood, was displeased.  As the women reached the summit, he turned each one of them to stone.  And there they are to this day, les demoiselles de Caraybat, a petrified reminder of a summer of sin.

A few of those demoiselles hide themselves behind the woodland trees
A few of those demoiselles hide themselves behind the woodland trees

We remembered this legend yesterday when I took our Laroquais walking friends to Caraybat and the dolomies to discover those daffodils I’d been shown on Thursday.  I was quite chuffed that not a single one of them had previously known this special spot, and we had a pleasant hour up on the rocks, picnicking and enjoying the last days of the daffodil season.

We followed the walk I’d learnt about on Thursday, and then we finished our day by going to the plateau above Roquefixade to see the gentians there.

Gentians above Roquefixade
Gentians above Roquefixade

Sadly, it was by then rather cold and windy, and most of the gentians had sensibly folded their indigo skirts about their faces and tucked themselves away to wait for a sunny day.  We’ll wait too.  And when the sun comes out properly, we’ll be back.

Not Christmas yet….

Everyone knows I’m a Christmas Refuser.  Oh, I enjoy Christmas alright.  I made our cake weeks ago, and Malcolm and I regularly ‘feed’ it with doses of brandy to make sure it’s good and sozzled.  I’ll happily rehearse Christmas music at choir too.

But that’s about it.  I do an about turn in any shop belting out Christmas Muzac and leave immediately.  I haven’t bought a single card or present, nor shall I until …. oh…. about the end of next week .  Then it’ll all get done in a flurry of cheerful activity, and I’ll enjoy it, because I haven’t been thinking about it since September.

Then the other day, I came across this six-years-old blog post, written in France.  Simpler times, simpler customs.  I wonder how often the window displays I wrote about here are seen these days? Innocent pleasures….

December 9th, 2012

Christmas on the High Street

Verzeille&decoDec2012 033It was 5 years ago when we were first in Laroque round about Christmas time.  There were no signs of its coming until well into December, and we thought it wonderful: no decorations, no adverts, merchandise or muzak,  just a bustle of festive activity from about two or three weeks beforehand.

The first signs, as in England, were in the shops.  Unlike England however, most shopkeepers didn’t usually buy tinsel, baubles, and several packs of cotton wool to introduce a Christmas theme into their window display.  Instead they had a seasonal design applied directly to the window.  We once saw a scene-painter busily decorating a local window, and wondered what he did the rest of the year.  Shops in small town high streets like Laroque’s would all be unified by being the same but different.  The same folksy interpretations of Christmas motifs, the same limited palettes of white, red, greens and yellows.  Some would choose scenes of reindeer amongst the Christmas tree forests, others Father Christmas,  snowmen, or radiant candles.

Garage in Laroque

Five years on, hardly any shopkeepers are keeping up this tradition.  They’re decorating their shops, but in their own way: dressing up their window display with baubles, snowflakes and Santa Claus figures.  They’re nicely done too, but I miss the particularly French idea, which I’ve seen nowhere else.

Here are the few traditional window scenes I’ve been able to find this year.  Maybe next year even these will be part of the past.

A baker’s shop in Laroque.