Flashback Friday: Malcolm and the Microlight

Ariège, Blogging challenges, Laroque d'Olmes, Pyrénées

We’re going back eleven years today: not to Malcolm’s actual birthday, which is In The Bleak Midwinter, but to an April day when we were still living in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and when a bunch of amateurs – the friends and family of Malcolm – formed an impromptu production company to deliver, for one day only – Malcolm and the Microlightto celebrate his birthday.

Malcolm and the Microlight

23rd April 2010

… celebrating in style for a 70th birthday

Starring Malcolm and Jacques.

Director: Henri

Producer: Margaret

Assistant Producers: Léonce & Brigitte

Script: Malcolm

Wardrobe: Jacques

Shot on location in the Ariège by Jacques, Malcolm & Margaret.

A Lawrenson-Hamilton-Clift Production MMX

Jacques’ microlight

‘Curiously, I had no feelings of fear or apprehension, perhaps because of what our friends had told us about Jacques, the pilot, and his machine – it’s his pride and joy, and he takes great care of it.

There was a sharp feeling of exposure after take-off – we were not in a cabin, there was no protection from wind, we were just vulnerable beings in a powered shell under a giant wing – it reminded me of riding pillion on a motorbike, but this was in the air.

Malcolm in the bright morning air

The various destinations came up quickly – not like travelling on the ground, even though our speed was only about 80-85 kph.

Over the mountain peaks, it was very cold – temperature had fallen from 13 or so on take-off to minus 1 over the snowfields and the flat white surfaces of isolated frozen lakes were still clearly to be seen.  And suddenly, directly underneath, a herd of Pyrenean chamois, running and leaping, disturbed by the engine’s sudden sound in their snow-quiet world

A few minutes more and we were at 2600 metres, when the mountains seemed so empty and cold, even in the lovely morning sunlight.   We could see long distances in the clear air at this altitude – 200 km away, we could see the Pic du Midi

The warmth after we left the mountains behind and lost altitude was welcome, and I could concentrate on the views of walks we had previously done, and which had sometimes seemed long and meandering, but were now clearly visible with their beginnings and ends.

Then back to the field and the short grass runway.  As we flew over, I could see Margaret far below, waving.  Then it was down, very smoothly, and a turn, and back to rest.  What an experience!  And how kind of my family to make this possible.

Flashback Friday

Bright Square

And finally … thanks so much Becky, and everyone who brought such joy in a month of Bright Squares. Here’s a Bright Bouquet.

Flashback to France

Ariège, Aude, Blogging challenges, Pyrénées, Walking

From time to time, some of you ask me how it was that we came to live in France for about seven years. This post, written on this day eleven years ago, tells the tale.

A WALK IN THE AUDE

February 26th 2010

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.

Sunset over the Pyrenees

.Flashback Friday

Rain, rain … up north and down south

Ariège, Blogging challenges, France, Laroque d'Olmes, Pyrénées, Walking, Weather

I bet you’ve been thinking, in these gloomy rainy days, that a bit of a break somewhere like the south of France might cheer you up. But not necessarily. In honour of Flashback Friday, I’ve found my post from 29th January 2013, written in the corner of Southern France that we used to call home.

RAIN RAIN …

The banner headline on this morning’s regional paper, La Dépêche du Midi, told us what we already knew. There’s been twice as much rain this month as is usual.  Of snow, we’ve seen hardly a flake.

Driving back from Foix yesterday, we saw meadows that have become mini- lakes.  Even more fields glistened with water as the water table has risen to the very surface of the soil. It’s made the month a somewhat gloomy one, even though the days have been pretty mild.  The mountain peaks are snow-capped, as expected, but the white stuff barely creeps down the mountainside and with all the low cloud and zilch visibility, it’s sometimes hard to know where the Pyrenees have disappeared off to.

The Pyrenees seen from up on our roof terrace

Our regular yomps into the countryside have been a bit curtailed.  Walk after walk has been rained off, and when we do go, we choose our routes with care.  If we don’t, we’ll be lugging kilos and kilos of glutinous heavy clay with us as it clings to our boots and the bottom of our trousers.

Muddy boots … up to our ankles in mud.

Roll on the 2nd of February, Chandeleur (Candlemas), the day when Winter decides whether to stick around or push off.  Last year, it was icily cold, and Winter stayed and made his presence felt with several weeks of constant snow, ice and bitter cold.  This year, he‘s looking much more half-hearted about it all.  We blame ourselves. We invested in snow-tyres and snow chains for the car.  We clothed our olive tree and a few other plants in white dresses of horticultural fleece.

Olive tree in a winter coat.

So Winter laughed in our faces.  We daren’t change the tyres or undress the tree though.  We all know what will happen if we do.

Square Up

In Search of a Druid or a Trout – Revisited

Ariège, Blogging challenges, Pyrénées, Walking

It’s re-post a Golden Oldie from France time.

August 27th, 2012

In search of a druid – or a trout

Mont d’Olmes: local playground for skiers.  You wouldn’t travel any great distance to spend a holiday here, but for locals, it’s the ideal winter sports spot.  It’s a wonderful area for walkers too.  We’ve only just begun to discover the wealth of footpaths, mainly across truly ‘sauvage’ slopes, with views downwards to Montségur, Roquefixade, and northwards almost, it seems, as far as Toulouse.

It’s alright waxing lyrical though.  For many people living in the area many years past, and until the early years of the 20th century, these slopes were the places where they came for long hours each day, working both on the surface and by crawling through narrow airless tunnels, mining talc.

Le lac de Moulzonne glimpsed through the trees at 8.00 a.m.

Talc?  Yes, that stuff you sprinkle on babies’ bottoms.  That stuff those Olympic gymnasts plunge their hands into before taking to an overhead bar.  That stuff that apparently still has many industrial uses, notably in the ceramics industry and for plastics paints and coatings.  This soft soapstone was found here on Mont d’Olmes and is still mined in nearby Luzenac.  Here though, all that is left are the gashes in the mountainside where the workings once were, and a few ancient trucks once used to transport the material down to civilisation.

Come and take the path we took last Sunday.  We walked in more or less a straight line, up and down hill after hill, as the path became increasingly rocky and impassable.

Our reward was the occasional handful of raspberries or bilberries, then a lunchtime picnic by l’étang des Druides.  No, sorry, l’étang des Truites.  Whatever.  Nobody seems to know which name is correct.  Some say the person making the first map of the area misheard and wrote ‘truite’ – trout – instead of ‘druide’.  We saw no trout.  We definitely saw no druids.  But we had a jolly nice picnic.  And I paddled.

And then I ruined a perfectly good day, in which morning chill and mist had given over to hot sunshine, by falling flat against the rocky path, cutting open my face and chipping three teeth.  I hope the druids weren’t lining me up for some kind of sacrifice.

August 2020, PS.  Don’t worry.  I’m fine.  The chipped bits, which were only small, have smoothed down nicely.

Jo’s Monday Walk

Le Cami des Encantats Revisited

Ariège, Blogging challenges, Festivals, Heritage, Patrimoine, Pyrénées

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.

Le Cami des Encantats

July 26th 2012

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.

Square Perspectives

Revisiting Transhumance in the Haut Salat

Ariège, Heritage, Pyrénées

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 in the Haut Salat

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.

Snowshoeing x Two

Ariège, Pyrénées, Walking

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.

Here I am, modelling my raquettes – snowshoes.

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.

 

An Everyday Story of Country Folk revisited

Ariège, Heritage, Pyrénées

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.

A couple of millas stirrers.

He showed us wooden clogs.

Wooden clogs with metal horseshoe-style heel strengtheners.

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.

A yoke. For safety reasons, it can quickly be divided in two.

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.

Wooden skittle and bowl. Confiscated from the church at le Sautel?

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.

Wooden fork and spoon. A good strong shape. The short handles ensure a long and useful life.

A Day in Vic

Blogging challenges, Catalonia, Pyrénées

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.

Jo’s Monday Walk