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.

M et Mme Bibendum

Bibendum himself, or Michelin Man.

We want a job.  Not any old job.  We want a job that equips us with a Michelin book of maps, a decent lunch allowance, money for petrol, and a green felt tip pen.  We don’t even expect to be paid.

What we want to do is become Michelin Inspectors.  Not of Michelin starred restaurants – though perhaps they could send us to dine in one from time to time.  No, we want to inspect all their ‘green roads’, the ones they regard as especially scenic and maybe worth a detour.  And we want to make suggestions of our own,

The D6 for instance, from just outside Mirepoix to Castelnaudary.  How could that not be a green road?  The route twists and turns, echoing the contours of the wonderful rolling hillsides, with the most majestic of the peaks that the Pyrenees can offer as a distant backdrop.

The roads round Castelnaudary, all innocent of green route status

Or the D625, which brings you back from Castelnaudary another way.  Compared with those, some of the highways in the centre of France which are rated green are rather dull.  ‘Huh! Officially pretty?’ we snort, as we drive along the endless D 976 near Romorantin.

Really, they should give the job to us.  We know a route that’s worth a detour when we see it.  And we’re both pretty handy with a green felt tip pen.

By the way, I forgot to take my camera with me on Friday when we drove along the above-mentioned D6 and the D625.  Please accept a view of the Canal du Midi in Castelnaudary itself in lieu.


Bertrand and his bodhran

It’s town-twinning time again.  Our Breton friends were here in Laroque for a few days, and a Good Time Was Had By All.  It’s hard to describe the simple pleasure of this weekend.  Re-discovering the region through Breton eyes and getting to know our northern friends a bit better: getting to know our Laroquais friends and acquaintances better too: music – lots of it – thanks to the talented and eclectic musicians who always form part of the group – a singer and bodhran player, a flautist and a keyboard player: and shared eating, lots of it.

If you still think France is the land of sophisticated and fine dining, you’ve yet to discover the Ariège.  People lived close to the land, they were out with their stock, working the fields, or keeping the textile industry alive and successful.  Busy women put a pot of food on the fire in the morning and expected it to look after itself till hungry workers came in demanding nourishment.  And they were likely to get azinat.  Azinat with rouzolle.  That’s what about 80 of us sat down to on Saturday night,

I suggested it was a dish that was more than a bit troublesome to prepare.  Joscelyne, in her 70’s and a life-long Ariègeoise was having none of it.

‘No, it’s easy!  Take a large cabbage and blanch it for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, chop your onions or leeks, carrots and any root vegetables you fancy, and sauté them gently.  Add some slices of belly pork, some sausages, a couple of bay leaves and the cabbage.  Throw in a couple of litres of water and simmer gently for at least a couple of hours.

Now throw in some large chunks of potato, some dried sausage, and the duck leg confit (these are portions of duck which have been preserved by salting the meat and cooking it slowly in its own fats) which you’ve browned gently in a frying pan to remove the excess fat, and continue to cook gently for another half hour or so.

Meanwhile, make the rouzolle.  Mix together chunky sausage meat, some chopped fatty bacon, eggs, milk, a couple of slices of bread, chives, parsley, garlic.  Form into a flat cake and fry on both sides.’

According to Joscelyne, the hungry family would have as their lunch the bouillon from the dish, poured over slices of bread generously sprinkled with grated cheese.  Cheap, filling and nourishing.

The deliciously soggy bouillon

Dinner, at the end of the day, would be all the meats and vegetables.


That evening, we sat down to the soup, followed by the meats.  Followed by cheese.  Followed by croustade, the Ariègeois answer to apple pie.  Followed by membrillo – quince paste – and coffee.  Followed by an energetic evening of Breton dancing.  We needed to burn off those calories.

It took a while to get us all on the floor. But we all made it eventually. Even me.

Sunday Rando

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.

François talks us through the walk. This is it, in cross-section

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.

As we finished our walk, the weather lifted a bit, and gave us a small taste of what we should have enjoyed

Later, back at home, our smug families 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……