Fire in the Pyrénées

Smoke from a forest fire high in the mountains above l’Hospitalet

We’re back in France.  It’s hot.  Very hot.  Humid too. And yesterday we returned Emily to Barcelona, the city she now considers home.  Barcelona was very hot indeed, 38.5 degrees Centigrade actually, which is 101.3 Fahrenheit in old money.

To get to Spain we crossed the  Pyrénées where, for the past month or so, fires caused by the extreme dry conditions have been fairly out of control: mainly in Spanish Catalonia, but spreading through to the Catalan area of France too.

Now though, there are fires near L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre.  This little commune is by way of being a frontier settlement between France, Spain and Andorra.  It’s unaccustomed to being newsworthy outside the pages of tourist brochures aimed at those wanting mountain scenery and an energetic walking holiday.

We knew that so far, and thankfully, no human settlements are at risk from the fires.  We knew too that all the walkers’ footpaths have been closed and so have the refuges, which offer basic accommodation and food to roughie-toughie hikers miles from normal civilisation.  We’d heard that more than 25 tourists had been evacuated from deep in the area some days before.  We didn’t expect to see from the road evidence of these fires, which have burnt and ravaged over 400 hectares of the countryside.

A helicopter reconnoitres.

But as we approached the village, traffic slowed.  Bit by bit, we snaked up the mountain road which, as it turned out, had been reduced to a single carriageway. A lay-by outside l’Hospitalet has been commandeered and enlarged by the army and fire services to provide a heli-port.  The fires are in thickly forested areas some 2400 metres high, and inaccessible to land-based fire-fighters.  Trackers (air-borne fire-engines) have come from Carcassonne, and scoop some of the water they need to quench the flames from our nearby reservoir here at Montbel. Expertise and equipment have been borrowed from other areas of southern France, and both army and fire service are on duty 24 hours a day.

Seeing some helicopters temporarily at rest together with their crews, brought home to us the real dangers of fighting these fires: they obstinately refuse to submit to man’s control in isolated and largely unreachable forests.  It was only on our journey home that we noticed, high above us, several fires at altitude, burning the trees and vegetation.  It may be a long time before the fire-fighters can go home, certain in the knowledge that this round of drought-induced danger to man and wildlife is really over.  The rain promised this weekend should help.

Army helicopters ready for action

My photos, by the way, are pretty poor.  This is because they were taken from a moving car

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.

Blossom and snow

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

Those peaks appear

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.

A few of those unending peaks
We keep walking
More distant peaks

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.

Picnic spot

The afternoon walk begins

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.

A day of solar energy and soldiers

We intrepid randonneurs from the Rando del’Aubo had our physical workout last Sunday- read all about it in my last post. But travelling to the Cerdagne last Saturday we were tourists, and slightly lazy ones at that.

Building? Solar panel? Research centre?…
….or just an interesting view

I’m so used to Patrimoine (Heritage) and the-great-outdoors being the reason to get out of bed on holiday here that I was quite unprepared for Héliodyssée. Built in 1968, it’s a series of gigantic solar panels whose purpose is to enable study of the possible applications of solar power, generating temperatures of up to…..3, 500 degrees. At this stage, it’s the space industry rather than you and me who are likely to benefit from the research, but one day, who knows? We admired the upside-down landscape views reflected in the solar panels, but decided against a scholarly visit.

The ramparts at Mont Louis

Off to Mont Louis then, and back to a real dose of Patrimoine. This town was built from scratch for Louis XIV as a military settlement in 1679. Vauban was the man in charge: marquis, engineer, town planner, philosopher, man of letters…and also military architect. 12 of his fortifications, Mont Louis included, were listed as World Heritage sites by UNESCO in 1998, so his significance and importance is in no doubt. This fortress, the highest in France, was needed as a result of the Treaty of the Pyrénées of 1659, establishing the border between France and Spain, although the walls which surround it seem rather low to protect against possible invasion.

It seems as if these ramparts still have their uses

But it was these walls we circuited, enabling us to see from afar the world’s first Solar Oven (this area seems to be Solar Power Central). We watched children abseiling down from the ramparts, instructed by the soldiers who are still a real presence in the town, and enjoyed the contrast between the somewhat severe presence of the barracks, and the lush and mountainous countryside beyond. Many of the town and garrison’s historic buildings can only be visited by pre-booked visits, so we made do with a look in at the simple, rather dour little church which Vauban built for the townsfolk – there were other chapels up at the garrison. Then we retired to a bar for a drink.

The view from Mont Louis
A Catalan take on meatballs, with tomatoes, olives and haricot beans

So then it was off to our lodgings for the night, les Ramiers in Bolquère. This area is popular all the year round – walkers in summer, skiers in winter. Les Ramiers supplies simple but comfortable accommodation to both. Our rooms were often quaint: Mal and I went direct into an en-suite shower room-come-study, and then climbed what amounted to a ladder to our attic bedroom. The welcome was cheerful, the views wonderful, and the food copious and tasty. We relaxed by taking a woodland walk most of the way to Font Romeu, enjoying that meal, and having a very early night. We knew we’d need all our energy at the Gorges next day.

Lupins: these were growing wild everywhere

Les Gorges de la Carança

I’d half written this post in my head before we even set off for our weekend away.  It was going to be all about how, despite my pretty high-maintenance vertigo, I managed to defeat my terrors and have a day’s climbing up vertical ladders and swaying bridges, inching along narrow paths high above the vertical drop to the bottom of les Gorges de la Carança.

We went there, I did all of the above, and astonishingly, I was never once gripped up by that all-too-familiar fear which prevents me from peeking over the edge of any castle battlements or church towers I’m foolish enough to ascend.

It was the Rando del’Aubo who proposed this overnight trip, high up into the Cerdagne region of the Pyrénées Orientales.  It’s a gorgeous area of high steeply sloped and densely forested mountains and wide deep valleys, green and fertile.  This is Catalan France, with a strongly Spanish feel, where Catalan is written and spoken almost as much as French, and the cuisine is very different from our homely Ariègeois farmyard and hunter’s fare.

We were tourists on our first day – that’s for a later blog.  Sunday was the day of the gorges.  A spectacular drive from our overnight accommodation, a few decisions to take about how much clothing to wear (early in the day, it was already hot), and we were off.

I wish my pictures told a better story.  It’s hard to convey the grandeur of the scenery, to show how very vertical and high the gorge sides are, and therefore how nerve-wracking parts of the walk were.  We enjoyed our six hour day, but it’s possible to spend two days exploring the area.  We were merely amateurs.

We spent much of the morning scrambling up craggy paths alongside a tumultuously noisy stream: and then there were scary catwalks clinging to vertical rock faces; ladders and suspension bridges, high above the water, often almost enveloped in the trees.  It wasn’t till the afternoon that we walked the Cornice, the narrow walkway hacked into the (vertical, of course) rock face – with a 400 metre drop to the bottom of the gorge.  The rewards, if you don’t frighten yourself to death by looking down, are the views of the peaks; craggy, splintered rocks of grey, white and ochre; of stunted and deformed trees clinging and growing with unexpected vigour to tiny fissures in the rock; the plant life, similarly finding footholds in this very challenging environment, and the butterflies, fluttering in huge numbers everywhere we looked.

It was a wonderful experience:  for the views, for the physical challenge of the roughy-toughy climbs and descents, for the feeling of risks overcome.  Yesterday too, we felt very lucky to have spent the day there.  It was hot, but pleasantly so in this forested place at an altitude of not too far from 2000 metres.  As we drove homewards and the temperatures increased, we realised just how unbearably hot and sweaty we’d have felt if we’d just stayed at home and loafed around the garden.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“No sky in all France is more blue than that of Collioure”: Henri Matisse. Not this week……

Because of our 6 weeks’ hard labour, because the weather here is so unseasonably gorgeous, and most of all, because it was Mal’s birthday yesterday, we decided on a Mid-Week Break.  A friend had just posted some photos of the sea at Collioure, radiant in the early spring sunshine, and we thought we’d like an off-season visit too.  The Pyrénées Orientales are nearly always sunny, with high temperatures and blue skies, even if we’re shivering over here, so we never bothered to check the forecast.  Big mistake.

Half way through our journey to the coast, the mist descended.  The sky turned pale, then grey.  The temperature fell.  Sea mist, we thought.  It’ll burn off.  It didn’t.

So our afternoon consisted in making the best of a bad job.  Which worked.  Rather than stop for lunch first at Collioure, which we feared might be closed for business, winter, mid-week, we went on to Port-Vendre.  This is still a busy fishing port, with tuna and sardine canning factories, so we had the idea that we’d be lunching with fishermen in oilskins.  Well, not at all actually, but fishy menus are centre stage, and we ate well – very well.

Then we came back to Collioure.  As we’d thought, nearly everything was closed, and without the sun to add sparkle and joie de vivre, we contented ourselves with an invigorating walk along the front before moving on: this is a region with plenty to offer.

This is Catalan France. It’s been ruled by Spain, by France, back and forth over the centuries, and many of its current inhabitants fled from Spain during the Franco regime, so it does have a very Spanish feel.  The frequent change of rule means that many bloody battles have taken place here too, and back in the 13th century, the fortified town of Elne suffered cruelly.  Under Catalan rule at the time, the troops of French king Philip the Hardy laid waste the town.  The townspeople fled to the traditional sanctuary of the church.  There the soldiers killed the menfolk, raped the women before the altar, and flung small children against the walls before burning the church, which still bears scorch marks on the main doorway.  It was this church, Sainte-Eulalie and its cloister we’d come to see. The church itself is a strikingly simple Romanesque building, beautifully lit and inviting quiet contemplation. It’s a little reminiscent of Durham Cathedral, but on a more domestic scale.  The cloisters are really special.  Partly Romanesque, partly Gothic, the capitals and pillars have been immaculately carved with foliage, animals and biblical scenes still in crisp and fresh condition.  It’s a lovely, quiet place.

We stayed the night at a traditional Catalan 19th century farmhouse, Mas Bazan.  After a night in our elegantly simple room, we enjoyed a ‘bio’ breakfast of home made cake and jams, newly baked bread, and the company of our stimulating and cheery hostess.  It was she who planned our day for us, suggesting things we might enjoy.

The misty weather limited our choices to some degree, but we had two highlights.  As we left the coast, we climbed upwards into the scrubby, shrubby Mediterranean hillside which we now know is called ‘maquis’, rather than ‘garrigue’, because the soils are different in each.  And we spotted in the distance our first destination, Castelnou,  not destined to be twinned with Newcastle.  A mediaeval castle and village appeared through the mist, with beyond, tantalizing glimpses of the massif of the Canigou.  As we wandered round the village, a few minutes later, we wondered who would choose to live in such a picturesque museum, overrun with tourists in summer, its several restaurants and craft showrooms overflowing, while in winter nothing, apparently, happens.

We had lunch in Ille-sur-Têt, which also has medieval streets, but ordinary small town life goes on there: it’s no tourist showpiece.  We’d come to see Les Orgues, north of the town.  These take the form of an amphitheatre of cliffs which the elements have eroded, and continue to erode, into extraordinary columns and pillars.  It’s arid, quite desert like, and quite ephemeral in that it’s constantly changing as the sand from which these structures are formed wears away and is re-deposited.  The photos I took record them as they are at the moment.  In a few years they’ll be different again.

And then we wound our way home, on a series of snaking backroads through the maquis.  The nearer to the Ariège we got, the hotter the sun became, the bluer the sky.  It’s not supposed to work like that.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The High Life at Lanoux

We’ve just had a wonderful weekend at Lanoux.   Well on the way to Andorra and Spain, the reservoir at Lanoux is high up (7261 feet) in the Pyrénées Orientales. It’s a natural lake, enlarged by the creation of an immense barrage that enables it to produce quantities of electricity for the area and for industry in the Ariège.  Building this barrage must have been quite an undertaking – it took 20 years from 1940-1960: up there, it’s a good 2 ½ hour walk down to the nearest road (though they did have a cable car, since removed), and the winter months are given over to deep snow.  And of course there was a world war on in the 1940’s.  We stayed in the refuge used by the construction workers at the time, a simple structure with a dormitory of three storey bunk beds, a large kitchen-living room, two hole-in-the-floor toilets, and … one washbasin just inside the entrance.  Everything we ate, everything we needed, we had to carry up – and bring any rubbish down again. But our two days there were memorable.  Why?

Was it the landscape? Our walk from the valley floor began with wooded green meadows, and as we climbed, we saw lakes, crossed 20 or more streams, and followed the course of a dozen others. Higher, the landscape became starker with slatey outcrops that reminded us of the Lake District or North Wales, though on a much bigger scale. Even though it’s June and the weather was warm, we soon reached what was left of the snowfields. We were surrounded by peaks higher still than we were, such as le Carlit, over 9 ½ thousand feet high

The flowers? Early June is a wonderful time to do this walk.  The azaleas aren’t quite out, but we saw Alpine & spring gentians, both a brilliant royal blue, orchids, sempervivum (joubarbe), vividly yellow gorse, creamy rock roses and saxifrage, tiny pink and white moss campion, delicate mauve violets, bilberry flowers, even a few late daffodils

The animals? Lower down, we spotted a herd of isards (Pyrenéan chamois) bounding across a meadow where semi-wild black Merens horses grazed.  Near our refuge, there were chestnut horses too, with their leggy young foals.  We spotted distant mouflons, and on the way down from Lanoux, marmots chasing and playing on the rocky grass.

The water? The lake itself is sternly beautiful, set among the slatey mountains of le Carlit, and the area is criss-crossed by deltas of streams and rivers, with splashing cascades as the water tumbles down the mountain sides.  There are ponds and lakes at every turn, and in every distant view.

Friendship? Weekends like this are the chance to nourish existing relationships, as this weekend with our Laroquais friends showed.  Up at the refuge though, we were joined by a group from Toulouse, who’d come, like us, to enjoy the empty countryside and to spend time together.  They all knew each other very well, and could have resented our intrusion: but instead, we shared some very special moments.  We pooled our food and drink, ate their homemade pâtés, and drank their homemade apéros.  We talked, laughed, played silly card games, and the next morning, went walking together.  So now we have some new friends too.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.