I can’t look at a picture of the Pyrenees without wishing I were there.
When we lived in France, these mountains were the constant backdrop to our lives. They were our playground, where we would enjoy flower-studded meadows in the spring, clear bright summer heat, autumn colours to rival those of New England, and glittering winter snowscapes. Winter and summer, we walked these mountains, climbing hundreds of feet to be rewarded over a leisurely lunch-time picnic by views of valleys, forests and dramatic rocks, before we had to descend to the foothills once more.
They were a natural boundary – often a barricade – between France and Spain, and the few roads linking these countries make wonderfully scenic journeys in their own right.
Travelling to our French town from England, we always knew we’d arrived ‘home’ when we caught sight of the Pyrenees once more – almost always as the sun was setting. The first glimpse of those jagged peaks, whose shapes and names we came to recognise so well always made me as emotional as if I’d just met once more a long-lost friend.
I felt stuck. In my head, I rummaged through my photo collection. I discarded foggy moody atmospheric mornings like this one. I rejected bright summer meadows and crisp snowy winter walks as not quite projecting the ambience I want to think about on this dismal January day.
Here’s what I’ve chosen. It’s an image that’s more than six years old now, but it sums up much of what we loved best about our years in France.
Our walking group had played its part in organising a walk for ramblers from all over the region. We’d arranged signage, helped sponsors set up their stall, marshalled the event, walked ourselves, and handed out certificates at the end before the visiting walkers departed. Now we could relax.
Here we are in the mediaeval town square in Mirepoix, unwinding over a good and copious meal with plenty of wine. The sun is shining. The afternoon stretches lazily ahead of us. We’re among friends. This is an ambiance chaleureuse at its finest.
We’ve been back in the UK from France six months now, so this seems a good moment to take stock.
Did we do the right thing in coming back to England to live? Absolutely no question: we’re so happy to be here, and nearer to most of the family. There are things we miss about our lives in France though: of course there are. It was tough to leave friends behind, and we continue to miss them. Still, three have visited already, and there are more scheduled to come and see us here. And it’s sad no longer having the Pyrenees as the backdrop to our lives. Though North Yorkshire’s scenery brings its own pleasures.
Still, it’s wonderful not to have to tussle with language on a day-to-day basis. Our French was pretty good, but it was generally a bit of a challenge to talk in any kind of nuanced way about the more serious things in life. Now I feel I’ve freed up enough head-space to revise my very rusty Italian, and to learn enough Spanish to get by when we visit Emily in Spain.
Many of our regrets or rediscovered delights centre on food. This summer, we’ve gorged ourselves on the soft fruits that the British Isles grow so well: particularly raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries. Oh, they exist in southern France, but they’re wretched, puny little things, with no lively acidic tang like those of their British cousins. In a straight choice between raspberries and peaches, raspberries win every time (though of course, it’s even better not to have to choose).
I miss, though, the choice we used to have in France of four or five different kinds of fresh, dewy whole lettuce available on market stalls every single week of the year. It’s flat, cos or little gem here, or those depressing bags of washed mixed leaves, and I find myself longing for the choices I used to have of crunchy, curly, bitter, blanched or soft leaves in various shades of green or even red. On the other hand, we do have tangy watercress here. And crisp crunchy apples, and Bramley cooking apples…..
And whereas in France there were always French cheeses on offer, and jolly good too, that was all there was, apart from the odd bit of shrink-wrapped Cheddar or waxy Edam. Here we can have English AND French (and Dutch and so on): decent French cheese too, unpasteurised, from small suppliers.
And what about eating out? Surely that’s better in France? Those copious home-cooked midday ‘formules’ – often a starter, main course, pudding AND wine, preferably eaten in the open air shaded by some nearby plane trees bring back such happy memories. But, but…. the menus were entirely predictable, and were dishes that had stood the test of time over the decades. After a few years, we wouldn’t have objected to a few surprises. Whereas back in Britain, most places seem to have upped their game considerably over the last few years. Local restaurants, pubs and cafés offer interesting menus, often based on what’s available that day, at fair prices. We’ve had some great meals since our return, and we’ve hardly started to get to know the area’s food map yet. And for Malcolm, there’s the constant possibility of slipping into a tea room to assess the quality of their coffee and walnut cake. This may be the main reason why he’s come back.
All the same, we can’t eat outside quite so often, particularly in the evening. And our fellow walkers have yet to be convinced of the pleasures of the shared picnic with home-made cakes and a bottle of wine: we’re working on them. Nor have we yet had a community meal, with long tables set out in the square as old friends and new share fun together over a leisurely meal.
Like most people who return from France, we find the crowded motorways unpleasant. But it is nice not to be followed at a distance of only a few inches by the cars behind us.
We’re struggling to shake off French bureaucracy too. Tax offices and banks over there continue to ignore our letters pointing out we no longer live there, continue to demand paperwork they’ve already seen, continue to ignore requests. And as we can no longer pop into the local office to sort things out, the problems just go on and on.
Something we’re enjoying here too is the possibility of being involved in volunteering. It’s something that exists in France of course: Secours Populaire and similar organisations couldn’t function without local help. But the French in general believe the state should provide, and the enriching possibilities for everyone concerned that volunteering in England can offer simply don’t exist. We already help at a community bakery, but I’m currently mulling over whether I should find out more about the local sheltered gardening scheme for people with learning disabilities, or about working with groups of children at Ripon Museums, or simply go into the local Council for Voluntary Service and find out what other opportunities exist.
Six months in, we’ve spent more time with our families, re-established old friendships, begun to make new ones. We’re happy in our new village home, and the slightly different centre-of-gravity we now have. Poor Malcolm’s waiting longer than he would have had to in France for a minor but necessary operation, but despite that, life’s good. We’re back in England to stay.
We’ve just come back from a glorious long weekend in Pembrokeshire in South Wales, with son, daughter-in-law and her parents. We were near St. David’s, Britain’s smallest city. Its population is the same as that of Laroque d’Olmes, and in other ways too the area seems to qualify as Ariège-on-Sea. Craggy mountains; fields of sheep and cattle; tiny one-track roads where the only likely traffic is a tractor, or even more likely, a herd of cattle coming home for milking; and long vistas, from the hill tops, of apparently endless countryside. And of course, the sea.
Our objective was to cover a goodish distance along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. It’s some 299 km long: we managed about 40 km. so we have some distance to go. But what a journey. This scenery must be among the most stunning in the UK. Steep limestone cliffs and bays, volcanic headlands, beaches, inlets and flooded glacial valleys are the home to innumerable seabirds, and at this time of year, seals seeking sheltered nurseries to give birth to and rear their pups.
For me, this was the toughest walking since we’d left the Pyrenees. You know where you are there. On the whole, you’re walking up a mountain. Then you come down. Whereas along the coastal path, you’ll be scrambling upwards to reach the top of a high cliff, before descending again, perhaps almost to beach level. Then up again. After that you might swoop down to a cove before marching upwards to the next headland… and so on. Bright sunshine, warm breezes, and bracing sea air cheered us along and kept our energy levels high…. until the evening, when we found ourselves drooping and heading for bed as early as 10 o’clock.
It’s come at last. The week we move back to Yorkshire. On Saturday we did ‘The Long Goodbye VI’. This time next week, we’ll have been back in England almost three days.
So that’s it for ‘Life in Laroque’. Maybe one more post. Maybe not.
So what do I do about it? Shut up shop and start again? Or simply change the title and keep writing? I don’t know how things will change for me once I get back to Yorkshire. I’m fairly sure I’ll want to keep on writing a blog. I’ve enjoyed the discipline of getting memories recorded. I’ve loved having feedback from friends. At first, these friends were people I’ve shared part of my life with, people I’ve worked with or spent time with socially. Increasingly, they’re cyber-friends: people who take the trouble to comment, criticise, offer suggestions and memories of their own, and whose blogs interest me.
Yesterday, though, Malcolm made a suggestion, remembering the exhibition I’d had a hand in organising here, comparing the Ariège with Yorkshire. Why not change the title of my blog to ‘From the Pyrenees to the Pennines’? That’s what we’re going to be doing after all : exchanging one set of hills for another. For quite a while, having been away so long, I expect to be something of a foreigner in my own country, and this might be reflected in what I choose to write about. Or not. I just don’t know.
I’m sure I’ll lose some of you, dear readers. Perhaps your interest is in France, specifically this part of France. But I’d love it if some of you choose to continue the journey with me, as we settle back to life in the UK and travel further afield from time to time. We’re bound to come back to the Ariège too. There are favourite people to see, favourite places to visit, and new places still to discover.
So ……. new blog? Continue with this blog under a new name? What do you think? I’d love to hear from you, especially if you’re one of those bloggers with whom I have cyber-conversations. Thanks for coming with me this far. I’ve enjoyed your company.
…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.
Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II. This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.
Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.
Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance. This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground. Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond. There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind. Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks. And now there is a fine memorial to them. Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation. There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features. In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food. Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away. Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix. Petrol? It could be organised, albeit with difficulty. A key man ran a garage.
First glimpse of the monument.
A better look at it
This is the view those figures have
The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco. A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art is a clear influence on his work. He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed. His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.
Time to move on, however. Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going. However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan. The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard . Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.
The way up to the refuge.
Jean-Charles gives us a short history lesson outside the refuge.
The modern extension and its ‘facilities’.
A cheerful picnic.
This was our view.
And this , on the way down.
We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round. We unpacked our food: as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course. Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends. The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect. We became tearful. But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first. Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends. We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do. It doesn’t bear thinking about.