Ragtag Tuesday: Rugged rocks

We both had an affair on holiday. It was a delight while it lasted, and when it ended, as it had to, there were no hard feelings. We’d like to do it again.

We both fell in love with the Corrèze in the Limousin. As far as the eye could see there were majestic rolling hills: forested, green, largely uninhabited other than by the occasional herd of Limousin cattle. Settlements were well-ordered and charming towns and villages, often demonstrating a history dating back to the Middle Ages and beyond. Of course we were smitten.

Then we continued on to our old stamping ground in the Ariège. Not all of this département is actually in the Pyrenees, but the mountains are always visible. And as soon as we saw them again, we knew our affair was over.

The foothills of the Pyrenees – the Plantaurel – from our friends’ house in Laroque.

The Pyrenees tug at our hearts like no other landscape. The gentle foothills are given added character by the backdrop of the mountains. We used to watch for the first flurries of snow on the peaks, maybe in September, while we were still in t-shirts.

When we lived in Laroque, this was our view from our roof terrace, and my daily joy as I hung out the washing there.

Anyone living in the Ariège could name the peaks, count them as their friends – Le pic de Saint-Barthélemy, le Pic des Trois Seigneurs, Montségur. Locals would tell you, every spring, exactly how little snow should remain on the high slopes before you could plant your spuds and beans. They would be the ones to relish the mountains in every way. They’d grab their snowshoes as the snow deepened to enjoy a silent walk in the crisp, cold empty landscape.

No snowshoes here. Just a rugged, snowy walk near Montaillou.

They’d know where to look for alpine strawberries in summer, and have secret places that they wouldn’t tell their closest friends about where they’d gather mushrooms in autumn.

They loved the rugged beauty of the mountains as we did, from the majesty of the snow-covered peaks, to the riot of wild daffodils, then gentians in spring, to the muted soft green palette of the hillsides at dusk on a summer’s evening, to the rich russets and golds of the autumn woodland.

I can’t visit the mountains though without being aware they demand our respect. They’re mighty, rugged and visually stunning. As we gaze at lines of rock, crumpled in geological eras long past, as we look at tumbled boulders lining the valley floor, or delicate but dangerous sheets of scree, they remind us that, compared with them, we are here on earth for a very short space of time. They have witnessed civilisations and religions rise and fall, harboured refugees from war and conflict, provided impenetrable barriers to would-be conquerors and generally put us in our place. It’s this combination of love and respect for them that draws me and moors me to them. Mere hills and plains simply can’t compete.

Today’s Ragtag Daily Prompt is ‘Rugged’.

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Snapshot Saturday: Wanderlust for the mountains

This is a bog-standard view of the Pyrenees as they looked near where we lived.

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.

Caraybat, near Foix, at this time of year.

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.

The Pyrenees in summer: near Saint Julien de Gras Capou.

‘Wanderlust’, this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge, means a strong desire to wander, travel and explore.  I know I’ve hardly begun to know the Pyrenees.  They are where I want to travel, to wander, and above all to explore.

Intent on satisfying our wanderlust: hiking near Montaillou, French Pyrenees.

What’s in a name?

Look! Here is a post of mine from more than three years ago. It could have been written to fulfil this weeks’s WordPress photo challenge: Names

From Pyrenees to Pennines

When I was at school, my French text books were peopled by characters such as Jean-Claude, Jean-Charles, Jean-Paul, Jacques and Georges.  There were Marie, Marie-France, Marianne, Jeanne and Jeanette.
My own classmates answered to names such as Valerie, Jean, Judith, Janet and Mary while the boys’ school along the road had types like Alan, Norman, Brian, Keith, and inevitably, John.
These names identify us firmly as children of the 1940’s and ’50’s.
So over the last week, on our journey through France, I’ve had fun looking for evidence of the latest trends in French first names, via Coca-cola’s latest marketing scheme of personalising drinks bottles with the current most popular given-names.

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When the Saints go marching in

Arrive in Calais, and all you have to do is drive about 700 miles south, as straight a route as you can, to find our house.  En route you’ll pass scores of towns and villages dedicated to saints you’ve never heard of.  Holy men and women such as:

  • Aignan
  • Cyr
  • Inglevert
  • Mesmin
  • Outrille
  • Pardoux
  • Pryvé
  • Sulpice
  • Ybard

I thought it was time to unearth a story or two.  So I dug out our dictionary of saints, which dates from my student days when I needed to know about such things, and then I put Google to work.  Nothing.  Almost nothing.  Not even on the websites of the communes themselves. There was the odd reference to a bishop who’d led a blameless life, but positively no ripping yarns.  Where’s the fun in that?

The story of St. Wilgefort was the kind of thing I had in mind.  In England we know her as St. Uncumber (you knew that, didn’t you?).  Her father, a Portuguese nobleman, wanted to marry her off to some pagan king.  As she’d taken a vow of virginity, she was not inclined to fall in with the plan.  Her prayers to become repulsive to her suitor were answered when she grew a beard.  Enraged, her father had her crucified.  For many years during the Middle Ages, she was venerated by people seeking solace from tribulation, and particularly by women who wanted to be liberated – unencumbered – from their abusive husbands.

St. Wilgefort in the church of St. Étienne, Beauvais
St. Wilgefort in the church of St. Étienne, Beauvais

If you have any stories of forgotten French saints, I’d love to hear them.

Rouen: our day out

Time for another trip to England (purpose of visit: to attend several 60th birthday celebrations). We generally try to visit somewhere new to us on our journey back, but this time, we decided to spend time in a town we’ve passed through maybe dozens of times, without spending time in anything more exciting than a traffic jam.  Rouen was to be our mini-break destination.

Though inland, it’s still a thriving river port, and once it derived its wealth not simply from this industry, but from textiles. Even today, the city symbol is a sheep, a reminder that Rouen once owed its opulence to working with wool.
 
We really were on a very mini-break, so decided to focus on a Rouen which Joan of Arc and anyone living there up till about the 16th or 17th centuries would have recognised.  We knew we’d find a few ancient streets.   But we were totally unprepared for a city centre where street after street consists of half-timbered houses and buildings, the oldest of which date from the 13th century.   There amongst them were glorious Gothic churches: the cathedral of Notre Dame, the abbey church of Saint-Ouen (sadly closed, because it was a Monday), Saint Maclou church (sadly closed because it’s coming to the end of a massive restoration programme).  In among, though, were modern quarters, woven into the ancient fabric of the town in a way that reminded us that Rouen suffered terrible damage in the 2nd World War, when bombing tore irreparable holes through the city.
 
This was was not the first time that Rouen witnessed death and destruction.  It was here that folk-hero and later saint, Joan of Arc died.  She was a simple peasant girl who, claiming divine guidance, led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years War, But after being tried for heresy by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais she was burnt to death in 1431.
 
Then there are the  grounds of the Aitre de St. Maclou.  They had been used as burial grounds since Roman times. However, during the Black Death of 1348 when three quarters of the area’s inhabitants died, the site became somewhere to throw the hundreds of corpses to whom an overwhelmed and diminishing  population could no longer give decent Christian burial.
 
But we were there on a glorious spring day.  We took away memories of a wonderful lunch eaten in the sunshine, walks along those characterful streets, and unexpected blossom of trees and flowers to lift our spirits.  Rouen, we know there’s so much more of you to discover.  We’ll be back.

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

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.