… the blades of grass … or the Pyrenees?
It’s that time of the month when I re-visit a blog post written during our years in France. I’ve chosen this one because of the perspective it offers on rural life there, a hundred or more years ago. Because France – certainly where we were in the foothills of the Pyrenees – had no Industrial Revolution, country life continued more or less unchanged for many until villages devastatingly lost their menfolk during the First World War.
Country life is country life, and some of these occupations would seem familiar to our own grandparents. Others less so. Have a look and see.
Today we visited Benac, one of those small and almost picture-postcard-pretty villages outside Foix. I think it’s unlikely that too many horny-handed sons and daughters of toil live there these days. Too many freshly painted facades and cheery boxes of geraniums at the windows. Too many sleek and highly-polished cars.
But once upon a time it was a busy working community. For the last few years, every summer the villagers here and in nearby hamlets arrange carefully constructed and dressed figures into appropriate corners of both village and countryside. These figures celebrate the way of life that persisted here – and throughout France – for centuries, and only died out some time after the First World War. They call the route you follow to hunt out all these scenes Le Cami des Encantats: Occitan for something like ‘the Enchanted Path’. Come with me and take a look. Click on any image for a closer look and a caption.
I struggled to decide what to re-blog from our years in France this month. June then was an opportunity to get further away from home to walk and to explore. Should I take you for a snowy walk to the heights of Lanoux? Or on a horrifyingly vertiginous expedition? Maybe le Cap du Carmil?
In the end, since we’re getting a bit fed up with being socially distant these days, I thought we’d go off and have a bit of a knees-up over in Seix. Come with us.
June 13th 2011
Transhumance. It’s that time of year where here near the Pyrénées, the cattle and sheep are moved from their winter quarters down on their lowland(ish) farms up to the lush summer pastures in the mountains. They’ll stay there till Autumn, and then be brought down again. And each time, it’s the excuse for a party.
On Saturday, we joined in, and went over to Seix to meet friends who live there. The Transhumance celebrations in Haut Salat last three days, but we made do with Saturday morning. We nearly arrived late – very late – because we found ourselves behind a herd of cattle making their steady way along the road. Overtaking’s not an option: the cows commandeered this route hundreds of years ago. But we managed to zip down a side road and make a detour. A whole hour later, after coffee with our friends, the herd reached the edge of Seix and passed their door….
…and finished their long walk into town. We went too, and arrived just as the last flocks of sheep were arriving, to be corralled like the cattle, at the edge of the town square. For a while, and probably much to their relief, they were no longer centre stage.
Instead it was jollity of the traditional kind. There were processions of large solemn plaster effigies, local bands. Dancers from Gascony, the Basque country, the Landes made sure we all had fun, and Malcolm and I even joined in some Basque dancing. Stars of the show for us were the shepherds from the Landes. Theirs is flat, marshy country, and they used to keep their eyes on their roving flocks by ranging round on stilts. But this was a day for dancing, and that’s just what they did, up high on those stilts. Have a look at the photos.
We went off for lunch at the end of the morning. But there was more celebrating, more meals to be shared, particularly by those farmers and country people who over the centuries have welcomed the fellowship of Transhumance as a break from the routines of an often lonely life.
I’m continuing my monthly habit of re-blogging a post from our days in France. Now that daily life is on hold to a large extent, new material may be in short supply quite soon.
This time I’m more or less amalgamating two posts from February and March 2013, my early experiences of snow-shoeing. I had a love-hate relationship with this sport. I loved the peace, and the opportunity to explore pristine snowscapes. But my goodness, it’s taxing.
Here I am in February – the 17th to be exact….
Snow shoes at Scaramus
It’s 7 o’clock. I can’t see me having a late night. We’ve had a day of ‘raquettes’ – snow shoes. Gosh it’s exhausting. You strap great oval saucers of plastic, webbing, and toothed metal to your feet and spend some minutes feeling like an ungainly baby taking its first uncertain footsteps across the endless wastes of the living room carpet.
But equilibrium returns, and without these cumbersome contraptions, how else would you walk across the undulating white snowfields of the Plateau de Sault, with views of snow-sculpted hillsides nearby, jagged snow-crusted peaks beyond? How else could you enjoy the sound of the satisfying crunch and crack as feet break through the crisp crust of the surface snow. Thank goodness for that icy layer. We found our 5’ long batons, plunged deep below the surface, wouldn’t touch the frozen ground beneath.
And with a bright blue sky, a hot sun enabling us to walk wearing T shirts and summer hats, what better way to spend a February Sunday?
But by March 4th, I had a surprisingly different story to report….
Snow Shoes II, The Sequel
We walkers of Laroque got our snowshoes out again today (well, in my case, I borrowed some), and went for a much more local sortie, just above Montferrier and en route for the local skiers’ playground, Mont d’Olmes.
How different from our last walk. Instead of wide open snowfields with distant views, we had woodland walking and bright sunlight casting blue shadows across our path.
Instead of gentle slopes rising and falling before us, we had an upward slog; unremitting, tough. Micheline and I, discouraged and tired, failed to reach the top, and missed the prize: a frozen lake with snow-clad views in every direction. Most of the party stayed with us and kept us company. Though our views were less exciting than those of the intrepid climbers, our picnic was the better one. We low-achievers had wine, home-made cakes and hot coffee with us to supplement our bread and cheese.
And the journey down was completed in record time. We arrived home as our gardens were gently baking in the last of the hot afternoon sun. More of the same is forecast for several days: there won’t be much snow left this time next week.
January. It’s almost at an end and I haven’t revisited a post from France yet this month. I’ve picked this one. We’re living in a village community here in England, yet it’s hard to imagine someone from here with memories similar to those of Paul, the subject of this post. Let’s have a history lesson from .…
…. January 29th 2012
An Everyday History of Country Folk
Yesterday afternoon was fascinating. We went to Belesta library for a talk by Paul Garrigues, a local historian who collects old wooden artefacts. He gave us an insight into a way of life which only finally drew to a close about 30 years ago.
He’s pretty much my age, but his childhood was spent around ox-drawn farm machinery, distaffs and a host of things that formed no part of my rural infancy. Now that most Ariègeois farms look pretty much like anywhere else’s, with tractors, silos and irrigation systems, it’s rather hard to believe.
Paul’s childhood was spent in the next village to here, Aigues Vives. Later, he met and married a young woman from a tiny community in the Couserans, a part of the Département to the west of here. He was surprised to find how different the tools in his wife’s village often were. Besides that, the villagers spoke Gascon, rather than the Occitan traditional in our part of the area.
His interest began. He started to collect mainly wooden artefacts: agricultural items, kitchen tools, playthings. To him these things tell a story of rural life here as it was lived over many centuries.
First of all, he showed us a simple wooden torch, looking something like a charred rounders bat. Items just like this were in use – almost daily – since man first populated the area in Stone Are times, right up until the First World War, and in a few cases, beyond.
Next, a distaff. This item too remained unchanged almost from those early days until the early years of last century. Any female over the age of about 8 living over the last 1000 years and more, whether rich or poor, would have recognised it. Spinning would have been a constant part of her daily routine, whether she was managing a fine estate, or supervising a few sheep on the mountainside. And do you know what? Constantly licking your finger and thumb as you handled the wool made your mouth dry, so beside you, you might have a little wooden box, filled with snuff, to help your saliva to flow: he showed us samples.
We saw long wooden balloon whisks and three-pronged forks used to stir the great vats of millas (a sort of porridge made from cornmeal) beloved of the Ariègeois, wooden spoons and forks, large wooden bowls.
He showed us wooden clogs.
We saw wooden roof tiles. All these things are made from unplaned wood, so the implements can follow the natural grain of the wood and be strong and sturdy.
From the Couserans he had savage long thick knives, looking like swords in their wooden or leather scabbards. Their design was directly descended from the instruments of war the Gascons often saw in their battle-rich past, but in fact they were more recently used to cut rough grass, crops, and the long straw required for thatching.
There were other differences between that part of the area and ours. Here, terracing was a feature of upland farms, and it was male beasts who worked the land. There, the farmers worked directly on the steep slopes: the cows who ploughed the land (it was female animals who did the work there) had to have specially designed wooden yokes so that they weren’t strangled as one worked at a higher level than her work-mate.
But it wasn’t all hard labour. Anyone who’s ever been to a bowling alley would recognize the bowls and skittles he showed us (made from wood, naturally). They were a big feature of life round Biert in the Couserans, but inter-village tournaments were rare. They all played to different rules, which tended to make contests rather difficult. But it was over here, in nearby Le Sautel, that a game was bought to a sudden end at the end of the 19thcentury.
One Sunday, the women went obediently to Mass, and as usual, the men played with their bowls outside, getting argumentative and noisy as the morning wore on. Eventually, the priest in church could take no more. He stormed out through the church porch, confiscated the bowls, and hid them in the sacristy. Evidently completely unchastened, the men simply produced other bowls when it came to their next match.
Paul’s keen that we should regard these tools and artefacts as living objects, part of a traditional way of life extending back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. He doesn’t want them consigned to the cemetery of history. If you live round here in some old-style village or town house, you’re almost certain to find quite of few of the things he talked about in your outhouse or attic. Perhaps I should have another look.
You may have realised we’re in Barcelona with Emily and Miquel, looking forward to the Three Kings arriving tomorrow. But yesterday, we left the Big City, caught a slow local train, and trundled off to the foothills of the Pyrenees, to Vic, 45 miles away.
The Romans knew Vic. The bridge they built here is in daily use. There’s a temple too.
The early Christians knew Vic. An important bishopric was established here, and a seminary, the basis of the present university. It was the most important market town in the area. This was the mediaeval town we’d come to see.
Look! Here’s the busy Market Square.
I’ve taken this photo from one of the covered arcades, built tall enough to allow a man on horseback to ride there. Many town doors are big enough to allow this horseman through.
Nowadays, Vic is assertively Catalan. If you look, you’ll see banners on the buildings supporting their political heroes. Slogans are everywhere.
But here is the Olive Tree of Peace. Hang your hopes here.
Most of my photos are in my camera. Here are phone snapshots of our walk round this delightful untouristy town, going about its market day business.
It’s time for my monthly trip to the archives. And an opportunity for me to remember, as I stare out at the rain sodden garden, that the grass isn’t always greener…..
November 14th 2014
7.00 a.m. Sunday. 22 Ariègeois radios were switched on for the day’s weather forecast. ‘It’ll be an exceptionally sunny and hot day for the time of year, throughout France. Temperatures in the south will reach 23 degrees in some places.’ 22 satisfied listeners, members of the Rando del’Aubo, switched off their radios…. without bothering to listen to the end of the forecast. Instead they turned to the more important business of packing their rucksacks for a rather heavy-duty walk an hour and a half’s drive from Mirepoix, la Forêt d’en Malo.
With a stiff climb of 700 metres in prospect, a 14 km. walk isn’t a stroll in the park. But the payoff as you emerge from the forest is an extraordinary panorama of the Pyrénées, jagged teeth of rock emerging from the thickly forested mountainsides: especially lovely in autumn as the trees turn from yellow, through ochre, to magenta and crimson.
As we drove eastwards, the cloud and mist descended. We parked, we walked, we climbed, we scrambled and we struggled for three hours as the mists became ever damper and more clinging, and an unexpected cold wind whipped across the mountain side. And at the top, this was our view.
We hadn’t listened to the end of the forecast you see. What we should have known that our little patch of south eastern France was a little bad-weather cold spot. There we were bang in the middle of it.
Later, back at home, our smug families and friends recounted how they’d spent the day in shorts and tee shirts. Maybe they’d had a little bike ride, a gentle stroll in the sunshine, a drink on the terrace in the hot sun……
Regular readers will know I’ve got into the habit, once a month or so, of revisiting an old post. And I’m reminded of what October used to mean in France. Blackberrying’s over now in England (the devil spits on the fruit as soon as October kicks in, didn’t you know?), but my inner-Frenchwoman has been squirreling away scavenged apples, pears, mushrooms – even a few unimpressive walnuts. It all reminds me of France, where foraging is a way of life…
‘All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin’ *
I’ve written before about the ‘au cas où’ bag: the carrier you always have with you on a walk, ‘just in case’ something tasty turns up and demands to be taken home and eaten.
Well, at this time of year, it isn’t really a case of ‘au cas où’ . You’re bound to find something. A fortnight ago, for instance, Mal and I went on a country stroll from Lieurac to Neylis. We had with us a rucksack and two large bags, and we came home with just under 5 kilos of walnuts, scavenged from beneath the walnut trees along the path. A walk through the hamlet of Bourlat just above Laroque produced a tidy haul of chestnuts too.
Yesterday, we Laroque walkers were among the vineyards of Belvèze-du-Razès. The grapes had all been harvested in the weeks before, but luckily for us, some bunches remained on the endless rows of vines which lined the paths we walked along. We felt no guilt as we gorged on this fruit all through the morning. The grapes had either been missed at harvest-time, or hadn’t been sufficiently ripe. They were unwanted – but not by us.
The walnuts we’re used to in the Ariège are replaced by almonds over in the Aude. You have to be careful: non-grafted trees produce bitter almonds, not the sweet ones we wanted to find. But most of us returned with a fine haul to inspect later. Some of us found field mushrooms too.
Today, the destination of the Thursday walking group was the gently rising forested and pastoral country outside Foix known as la Barguillère. It’s also known locally as an area richly provided with chestnut trees. Any wild boar with any sense really ought to arrange to spend the autumn there, snuffling and truffling for the rich pickings. We walked for 9 km or so, trying to resist the temptation to stop and gather under every tree we saw. The ground beneath our feet felt nubbly and uneven as we trod our way over thousands of chestnuts, and the trees above threw further fruits down at us, popping and exploding as their prickly casings burst on the downward journey.
As our hike drew to an end, so did our supply of will-power. We took our bags from our rucksacks and got stuck in. So plentiful are the chestnuts here that you can be as picky as you like. Only the very largest and choicest specimens needed to make it through our rigorous quality control. I was restrained. I gathered a mere 4 kilos. Jacqueline and Martine probably each collected 3 times as much. Some we’ll use, some we’ll give to lucky friends.
Now I’d better settle myself down with a dish of roasted chestnuts at my side, and browse through my collections of recipes to find uses for all this ‘Food for Free’.
* Two lines from an English hymn sung at Harvest Festival season: ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’
We’ve been invited this week, in the Lens-Artists Challenge #65 to pick a place that’s captured our hearts. I barely had to stop and think. The Pyrenees has the power, even more than my beloved Yorkshire Dales, to stir my soul, to inspire and awe, to soothe and quieten me.
These mountains formed the backdrop to our lives in France. We were in the foothills, but even a twenty minute drive had us steadily climbing to the higher peaks. Here was where we spent our Sundays with our walking friends, getting our heartbeats up with stoical climbs in the morning, before a leisurely picnic with those slopes all around us: craggy, alive with butterflies, bugs and beetles and sturdy yet delicate wildflowers: then an afternoon dropping down once more to the valley.
Here was where, for much of the year, we could see snow-covered peaks in the distance, while nearby were meadows with gentians, impossible numbers of orchids, poppies, and early in the spring, wild daffodils.
A drive over to see Emily in Barcelona meant crossing the very highest peaks: dizzying climbs, vertiginous descents. Our own ‘patch’ was less demanding, more homely, with sheep, cattle and donkeys grazing the meadows among beech and oak wooded slopes.
There was history here: the revivalist Christian Cathars flourished. There was industry – talc mining, textiles, now all gone. Farming and tourism are what remains. And the Pyrenees always provided a barrier and a stronghold in times of conflict. For us though, for more than six years, it was simply … home.
An entry for Lens-Artists Challenge #65: Pick a place
And also for Fan of …# 35
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.