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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The Principality of the Brothers Grimm. And Stone Soup.

Sunday. We went to Nébias in the Aude. Just outside the village, you’ll find The Labyrinthe Verte, a natural maze, with winding pathways through a forest, where rocks and plants have created a bewildering array of natural passageways which are both beautiful and fun to explore. These paths are cut deep through limestone, often shoulder height.  Somehow, we’ve never visited.  But today, thanks to the Rando del’Aubo, our walking group, we did.

It’s been a lovely bright spring day today, but the forested labyrinth is never really sunny.  Trees, their trunks and branches bearded with feathery fronds of moss and lichen, crowd the limestone crags and fissured passageways.  Deprived of light and space, they assume crippled and fanciful shapes, or else aim straight for the sun, their thin trunks competing with each other for a place to establish their roots.  It’s not eerie however.  On this warm March day, we wouldn’t have been surprised to meet an ethereal band of fairies whirling through the dampened glades: on a bad night in November, perhaps a gnarled and wicked hag from the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Every time of year has its own magic apparently.  On the coldest days of winter, the mosses and lichens are white and crisp with frost, making the forest fit for a Snow Queen

At lunch time, since we were in France and eating’s important, the darkened passages unexpectedly cleared.  Suddenly, beneath blue skies and bright sunshine there was a fissured limestone pavement, providing surfaces and seating for our lunchtime picnic.  Which Malcolm didn’t have with him.  The members of the group magicked their very own version of Stone Soup for him.  A mustardy ham baguette, some home cured sausage, a chunk of bread, a chocolate pudding, and apple….within half a minute, Malcolm had more food then the rest of the group put together.

The afternoon was different.  Walking away from the enchanting and enchanted labyrinth, we came to more open country, where we passed first farmland, then the edges of forest with tracks showing where wildboar and deer had recently passed.  Finally, we climbed, and had views across to the mountains and the walks we’ve enjoyed there on other Sunday rambles, finishing up listening to the lively splashing of a waterfall.

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Le P’tit Marché d’Is@

If you live within the long oval that has Mirepoix at the top, and Tarascon at the bottom, you might be lucky enough to get your fruit and veg. from Le P’tit Marché d’Is@ – Isabelle’s Little Market.

Isabelle, a young woman from Montferrier, has recently started a vegbox and grocery business, and it really is ‘the business’.   My memories of veg.boxes a few years ago in England are of worthy offerings that always included rather more soil-encrusted swedes than anybody could reasonably want.

My panier, last week

This isn’t like that. Her fruit and vegetables are organic or Agriculture Raisonnée, (limited use of drugs, fertilisers etc. permitted, within strict guidelines) all locally sourced: this week’s panier included potatoes, carrots, radish, celeriac, cabbage, spinach, chicory, lettuce, kiwi fruit, oranges and apples, all organic, and squeaky fresh. Last week’s, apart from the basics of potatoes, carrots and apples, was quite different.

Sorting out the shopping

Besides this, she’ll sell individual quantities of various fruit and veg , and she also has other lines. Poultry, pork, dairy products including various Ariégeois cheeses and yoghourts, all from farms no more than a few miles away.   Groceries include wonderful organic flour from a mill near here, pasta, beers, and from slightly farther afield in the Pyrénées Orientales, oils, dried fruits, nuts,tapenades etc.

Just arrived and ready to deliver

It’s very simple: you order by Monday midday for delivery later in the week.

Now I really look forward to 11 o’clock on Thursday mornings when her little white van swings into the parking space outside our house, and she cheerily hands over her bulging panier of shopping for us to unpack and plan the menus for the next few days (she even has a recipe idea or two tucked in the bottom of the basket). It even beats market shopping.  AND it’s made me feel not quite so unhappy about deciding not to grow my own vegetables this year.

Her morning's work all lined up in the van
Isabelle's morning's work all lined up in the van

One lump or two?

Enfin! We are at last a real proper French household.    Pop round to us for a mid morning break these days (as Henri often does) and you’ll get coffee (freshly brewed in a cafetière of course.  Small cups.  No milk offered) and the sugar on the side will no longer be in a dinky English sugar bowl or –  even worse – bag.

Certainly not.  We have invested, as any French householder should, in a pretty box specially designed to hold the rectangular cardboard boxes of sugar lumps on sale in any old grocer’s or supermarket. C’est normale.

The Garden of Earthy Delights

At this time of year, with spring nudging the crocuses, violets and celandine into flower, and encouraging buds on trees to fatten and swell  before bursting into flower, it’s time to be busy outside.

My single patch of white violets among all the purple

Our garden’s a minute or two’s walk from the house, and out of sight can mean out of mind.  So once there (‘I’ll only be 10 minutes’….), I’ll find all kind of things to do.  The grass needs strimming already.  The vegetable patch is a disgrace.  The fruit trees need attention: they suffered horribly in last May’s heavy snow, and they should really have had careful pruning much earlier this month. The compost heap needs a bit of TLC.  Time passes while I prune our ‘vineyard’ – 6 vines. (‘Oh, sorry, have I really been two hours?’)

The pear tree: lots of character, not many pears

So I’ve taken a big decision.  No vegetable patch this year.  That way, the trees may get the extra attention they need:  the ivy and brambles may not get the upper hand quite so readily, though I wouldn’t bet on it.

I’m not going to do it on my own though.  From Easter, we’re planning new recruits to the garden: a gang of hens, whose job it will be to peck away at all the grubs, and keep the grass trimmed, whilst offering the occasional egg for breakfast.

The hens next door running free

Quite a few friends in England have re-homed ex-battery hens, and I’d love to do this too.  I’ve written emails, joined internet discussions, asked around, but it doesn’t look as if I’m going to be able to find any here in France.  But the search goes on as we plan the next project: build a hen house.

Although it’s often a lot of hard work, this garden’s a really special place for me  (and I do mean me.  Malcolm’s excused gardening duties so long as I’m excused DIY duties).  From it, I can see Montségur, the thickly wooded long chain of hills called the Plantaurel, and the snowy peaks of the Pyrénées behind .  So near to town, and away from the house, it’s where I come to get away from it all, and have a healthy workout as I dig, hack, uproot and generally try to keep Nature at bay.By the way:  greenfinch update.  Enough already!  They’ve shown themselves to be belligerent, selfish dogs-in-the-manger, who dive-bomb, use their wings to beat off the opposition, peck, bamboozle – anything to keep any other bird away, even ones who are eating their least favourite thing on the feeding station.

Greenfinch fighting

They’re also extremely messy.  I’ve told them.  I’m not replenishing the feeder till they’ve eaten every scrap of the food mountain they’ve dumped on the ground beneath.

Oh, and as our lunch guests pointed out,  it was a goldfinch, not greenfinch onslaught we had two years ago.  We’ve seen none since.  They’re all 4 miles up the road at my friend’s house in le Peyrat.

Greenfinch Day

Female greenfinch

Two years ago, on Valentine’s Day, we had friends over to lunch.  We spent much of the meal glued to the sight of a huge flock of greenfinch which had suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, descended to the garden, and specifically the bird table.  It was food they were after, and they swooped, squabbled, jostled for position, selected seeds, came back for more, and generally monopolised the garden to the astonishment of the regular tits, wagtails, blackbirds, sparrows and robin.

On 15th February, we got up, eager for a repeat performance.  But they’d gone.  And they never came back.

Male greenfinch

Until today.

We only realised they were here when over breakfast we heard ‘Bang!’ followed by ‘Bang!’ against the window.  Two finches, one after the other, had hurtled – hard -against the glass, and we found them lying inert on the ground.  We tiptoed round, knowing we had to leave them be, and hoped for the best.  After ten minutes, one of them suddenly shook her head in surprise, ruffled her feathers, and flew off.  The other never recovered.

The other greenfinches didn’t seem to care.  All day they’ve been wheeling around, careering from sunflower seed feeder to peanut net, to grain dispenser, always feeding, feeding, dropping discarded shells and tiny crumbs onto the ground beneath, where all the birds, whether finches or regular residents, continued to scavenge all day.

I wonder if they’ll be there tomorrow?

Feeding time

Bureaucracy at work – oh, and a couple of removal men

The phone rang.  ‘Hi!  This is Holly speaking.  Your furniture, all the stuff we were going to deliver to you from England on Thursday….could the lads come now, they’re ahead of schedule?’  A quick summit meeting, and we decided that no, they really couldn’t.  We simply weren’t organized enough yet.  But we’d settle for Wednesday morning.

I put the phone down, and something at the back of my fuddled brain told me I really ought to tell them at the Mairie (Town Hall) that we were having a removal van the next day.  So I did.  Thank goodness.  Not telling them would have been little short of criminal, it turned out.

For more than half an hour, they filled in documents for publication outside the Mairie itself and our house, and sent copies to the Fire Brigade, the Police and Technical Services, among others, for their information.  The mayor came out of a meeting to sign the documents.  Staff told me we needed to take responsibility for placing the barricades they would arrange to have delivered, so that nobody could park in our part of the street between 8.00a.m. and 2.00 p.m.  We would also need to talk to all relevant neighbours and ask them not to park in the street between those hours.

I came home (we live 2 doors away from the Town Hall) and as I fished around for my door keys, I saw a council delivery lorry already putting 5 barriers at the end of the road for us to erect later.  Malcolm commented that this was a tale worthy of that unmissable 1970’s children’s programme ‘Trumpton’, with its vignettes of a way of life none of us could quite believe had ever existed.

This road train's on its last trip ever. Back in the UK, it's going for scrap

It turned out the fuss was worthwhile.  When our removal van came, it was a ‘road train’, 2 waggons long, and mopped up every bit of space in our little parking area.  It had left the UK nine days earlier, and spent all that time roving all over France: Alps, the coast – anywhere the English settle over here – delivering from the UK to some, and collecting for transporting to the UK for others.   Paul and James, in the manner of removal men everywhere, tossed sofas, chests of drawers, huge boxes of books over their shoulders and trudged up and down our narrow stars for two hours till the wagon was almost empty.  Almost, but not quite.  Next stop Perpignan, before they head back at last, to be home just in time for a weekend in England.

Now all we've got to do is sort out, move round, organise......

Ooh, and by the way.  They told us that removal vans sent to Europe are almost always unmarked, as ours was, because they can attract the interest of the Mafia in Italy, and even in parts of France.  Paul had a close encounter himself not so long ago, and had to shift himself quick, never mind that his tachograph said he’d done his hours that day.  Luckily for them, we had no such excitement here.  Just a pile of paperwork for the municipal records.

...and unpack 57 boxes of books