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.

Azinat

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.

Azinat

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……

To travel – slowly – is a better thing than to arrive – quickly…..

RL Stevenson: Travels with a donkey

Robert Louis Stevenson knew a thing or two about travelling slowly – and hopefully – what with hiking round the Cevennes with only a donkey for company.

But yesterday, arriving back in Laroque rather quickly having left Bolton only a few hours before, I felt he’d got it right. Our usual way of travelling between England and France is by car.  We can’t claim it’s particularly slow, not with maximum speeds of 130 k.p.h on motorways.  But it does take the best part of 3 days to do the pretty-much-exactly 1000 miles between Laroque and Ripon, and that’s fine.

Cahors

We detour to take in delightful towns like Cahors or Vendôme, and make sure we have time to explore a little.  Early morning starts may find us startling deer in the still misty fields, while at lunchtime we’ll be on the look out for a ‘menu ouvrier’, or a rural picnic spot to have a lengthy break.  We’ll enjoy a night at a chambre d’hôtes, and usually have an interesting time chatting to the owners or a fellow guest.  Breakfast with home made jams and maybe breads and cakes comes as standard. A trip on a channel ferry. A night in London with son-and daughter-in-law.  And finally, back up north.

And all this time, we’ll be adjusting between a life in France and a life in England: watching the scenery gradually flatten as we drive north, then begin to undulate again as it passes through Normandy and the Pas de Calais, linking with the similarly gently rolling hills of Kent.

This trip to England though was by plane each way.  It’s quicker and it’s cheaper too.

But the whole business of packing luggage into the required dimensions, checking the weight, hunting for a clear plastic bag for those creams and liquids: then at the airport emptying pockets, removing shoes, belts, is just a bit stressful.

Airport security: an image from the Guardian

And somehow it addles my brain. Three hours ago I was in a traffic jam on the outskirts of industrial Liverpool, and now we’re driving through vineyards in the Aude? The clothes which worked in the morning don’t do in the afternoon, and I’m having trouble adjusting the language coming out of my mouth.  I’m all discombobulated.

We’re lucky we have the time to be more leisurely.  I’m not against taking it even more slowly and walking some of the way down, maybe along one of the pilgrimage routes towards St. Jaques de Compostelle.  Anyone want to come too?  Barbara?  Sue K?

A day of solar energy and soldiers

We intrepid randonneurs from the Rando del’Aubo had our physical workout last Sunday- read all about it in my last post. But travelling to the Cerdagne last Saturday we were tourists, and slightly lazy ones at that.

Building? Solar panel? Research centre?…
….or just an interesting view

I’m so used to Patrimoine (Heritage) and the-great-outdoors being the reason to get out of bed on holiday here that I was quite unprepared for Héliodyssée. Built in 1968, it’s a series of gigantic solar panels whose purpose is to enable study of the possible applications of solar power, generating temperatures of up to…..3, 500 degrees. At this stage, it’s the space industry rather than you and me who are likely to benefit from the research, but one day, who knows? We admired the upside-down landscape views reflected in the solar panels, but decided against a scholarly visit.

The ramparts at Mont Louis

Off to Mont Louis then, and back to a real dose of Patrimoine. This town was built from scratch for Louis XIV as a military settlement in 1679. Vauban was the man in charge: marquis, engineer, town planner, philosopher, man of letters…and also military architect. 12 of his fortifications, Mont Louis included, were listed as World Heritage sites by UNESCO in 1998, so his significance and importance is in no doubt. This fortress, the highest in France, was needed as a result of the Treaty of the Pyrénées of 1659, establishing the border between France and Spain, although the walls which surround it seem rather low to protect against possible invasion.

It seems as if these ramparts still have their uses

But it was these walls we circuited, enabling us to see from afar the world’s first Solar Oven (this area seems to be Solar Power Central). We watched children abseiling down from the ramparts, instructed by the soldiers who are still a real presence in the town, and enjoyed the contrast between the somewhat severe presence of the barracks, and the lush and mountainous countryside beyond. Many of the town and garrison’s historic buildings can only be visited by pre-booked visits, so we made do with a look in at the simple, rather dour little church which Vauban built for the townsfolk – there were other chapels up at the garrison. Then we retired to a bar for a drink.

The view from Mont Louis
A Catalan take on meatballs, with tomatoes, olives and haricot beans

So then it was off to our lodgings for the night, les Ramiers in Bolquère. This area is popular all the year round – walkers in summer, skiers in winter. Les Ramiers supplies simple but comfortable accommodation to both. Our rooms were often quaint: Mal and I went direct into an en-suite shower room-come-study, and then climbed what amounted to a ladder to our attic bedroom. The welcome was cheerful, the views wonderful, and the food copious and tasty. We relaxed by taking a woodland walk most of the way to Font Romeu, enjoying that meal, and having a very early night. We knew we’d need all our energy at the Gorges next day.

Lupins: these were growing wild everywhere

Les Gorges de la Carança

I’d half written this post in my head before we even set off for our weekend away.  It was going to be all about how, despite my pretty high-maintenance vertigo, I managed to defeat my terrors and have a day’s climbing up vertical ladders and swaying bridges, inching along narrow paths high above the vertical drop to the bottom of les Gorges de la Carança.

We went there, I did all of the above, and astonishingly, I was never once gripped up by that all-too-familiar fear which prevents me from peeking over the edge of any castle battlements or church towers I’m foolish enough to ascend.

It was the Rando del’Aubo who proposed this overnight trip, high up into the Cerdagne region of the Pyrénées Orientales.  It’s a gorgeous area of high steeply sloped and densely forested mountains and wide deep valleys, green and fertile.  This is Catalan France, with a strongly Spanish feel, where Catalan is written and spoken almost as much as French, and the cuisine is very different from our homely Ariègeois farmyard and hunter’s fare.

We were tourists on our first day – that’s for a later blog.  Sunday was the day of the gorges.  A spectacular drive from our overnight accommodation, a few decisions to take about how much clothing to wear (early in the day, it was already hot), and we were off.

I wish my pictures told a better story.  It’s hard to convey the grandeur of the scenery, to show how very vertical and high the gorge sides are, and therefore how nerve-wracking parts of the walk were.  We enjoyed our six hour day, but it’s possible to spend two days exploring the area.  We were merely amateurs.

We spent much of the morning scrambling up craggy paths alongside a tumultuously noisy stream: and then there were scary catwalks clinging to vertical rock faces; ladders and suspension bridges, high above the water, often almost enveloped in the trees.  It wasn’t till the afternoon that we walked the Cornice, the narrow walkway hacked into the (vertical, of course) rock face – with a 400 metre drop to the bottom of the gorge.  The rewards, if you don’t frighten yourself to death by looking down, are the views of the peaks; craggy, splintered rocks of grey, white and ochre; of stunted and deformed trees clinging and growing with unexpected vigour to tiny fissures in the rock; the plant life, similarly finding footholds in this very challenging environment, and the butterflies, fluttering in huge numbers everywhere we looked.

It was a wonderful experience:  for the views, for the physical challenge of the roughy-toughy climbs and descents, for the feeling of risks overcome.  Yesterday too, we felt very lucky to have spent the day there.  It was hot, but pleasantly so in this forested place at an altitude of not too far from 2000 metres.  As we drove homewards and the temperatures increased, we realised just how unbearably hot and sweaty we’d have felt if we’d just stayed at home and loafed around the garden.

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Euskal Herria meets the Yorkshire Dales

This week was a first for us, when we made a quick visit to the Basque country (Euskal Herria), way over to the west .  When we got there, there were no frontier posts, but we knew immediately that we’d arrived.  Suddenly, houses, instead of being colour-washed in creams and beiges and ochres, or not at all, were  all tidily painted white, every single one, with ox-blood coloured shutters and paintwork.  Place names were in French and Basque, and quite a lot of other signage too.

But the thing is, despite all that, we thought we’d arrived in Yorkshire, or Lancashire, or somewhere in England at any rate.  Softly rambling ranges of hills, so very green, and studded with sheep.  Roads which preferred to ramble gently round the contours instead of going straight in the French style.  Take away the Pyrénées in the background, their jagged peaks still white with fresh snow, add in a few drystone walls, and – voilà! – the Yorkshire Dales.

After all the hard work back at the house, we needed the peace of the countryside, so we’d chosen to stay at an Accueil Paysan farm. We knew that  meant that we’d be welcomed into simple comfortable accommodation at the farmer’s house, and share a family meal with them in the evening.  Always good value in all sorts of ways.

The welcoming committee in this case turned out to be six cheerily noisy pigs, a gang of chickens, and a sheep dog.  The humans were no less friendly, and we settled in by exploring the small farm with its 30 or so cattle, and about 300 sheep.  Sheep’s cheese is the big thing round here, and throughout the autumn and spring, when there’s plenty of milk, this family makes cheese every morning (far too early for us to be there, it turned out: all over by 7 o’clock) in their fine new cheese-production shed.

Our hosts are Basque speakers.  Their children only learnt French when they went to school.  Now that one of these children has a son of his own, he and his wife (who’s not a Basque speaker) have chosen to have the boy educated at one of the many Basque-medium schools, so that he will be among the 30% of Basques who are comfortable using their language.  It’s an impenetrable and complex one.  Its roots are a bit of a mystery, and certainly it’s not Indo-European.  With French, Italian and Latin at out disposal, we can make a good stab at understanding Occitan, the language of our region, but Basque remains impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t been immersed in it.

The next day, we explored St. Jean Pied de Port. From before the time of the Romans, it’s been a market town, an important jumping off point for Spain.  It’s been a garrison too, and an important stop-over for pilgrims on their way to Compostella.  Now it’s a tourist centre too, for walkers in the region.  It’s an attractive town, surrounded by ramparts.  We pottered around, enjoying views from the ramparts, pilgrim-spotting, ancient doorways, and watching the river, before setting off for a leisurely journey home.

And next time we stay, we’ll make it much longer than 36 hours.

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