Above us only skylarks

Every Thursday, Anny leads us on a walk. We might go eastwards to the Aude, south towards the higher  Pyrénées….or indeed travel in any direction, certain of a wonderful day’s walking.

Today we met just beyond Foix, and still in our cars, climbed…and climbed…and climbed,  steadily for 9 miles.  And at the highest point of the Col d’Uscla (1260 metres), we parked. Then we laced up our walking boots, slipped on our rucksacks, and climbed…and climbed…. and climbed.

It was steady rather than challenging, and several times, Malcolm and I remarked that if it were not for the  Pyrénées beyond, we could have been on the North York Moors, with added altitude and sunshine.  Endless expanses of bilberry plants added to the illusion. Each hill we climbed promised to be the last: but as we reached each summit, another hillside appeared in view.

Our eventual reward was at the Cap-du-Carmil, at 1617 metres, with a 360 degree panorama of the  Pyrénées. It was quite, but not perfectly clear, yet we could probably see 50 miles or more in any direction. The only sounds were from the skylarks, joyfully singing way above our heads. I’ll let my pictures tell, slightly inadequately, the story.

Down through more wooded paths, there was the town of Massat below. Once the Ariège’s largest town, its isolated position and failing industrial life means it’s slightly forlorn now.  But not when you’re looking down on it, several hundred feet below.

A quick sortie to the Tour Lafont. This was built in the 1830’s, at a time when 12,000 French soldiers descended on the area to fight the ‘demoiselles’, local guerrillas disguised for some reason as women, determined to maintain their rights to collect wood for fuel, rather then allow it to be taken for the industrial economy slowly emerging throughout France. Despite their superior numbers, the soldiers lost the battles, and there are only odd reminders of their presence at the time in towers such as this one.

After lunch, on through the woods, until we rejoined once more our path with its open mountain views. Horses grazed the short grasses, and seemed only mildly curious about us.

And then it was over.  Boots and rucksacks off: cold juice, a moist and squidgy chocolate cake (thanks, Anny!), a final chat…. and back down that narrow uninhabited 9 mile road to civilisation , home and a cool shower.

Freecycling French style

Back in the UK, I was part of the Harrogate Freecycle mafia. The members of this online community offer goods they no longer require for free to other members. One or two members, in difficult circumstances, have managed to find carpets, washing machines, beds and tables courtesy of the generosity of fellow Freecyclers.  Most of us have acquired something for the toolbox or garden, or a child’s toy, bedding for a dog, a director’s chair, a bookcase, or…. or… .  some other thing that another member no longer wants but doesn’t want to see ending up in landfill.  And most of us give at least as much as we receive, and enjoy the relationships we forge as a result.

In Laroque, a small group of us were keen to replicate this success. Outside the main urban areas, Freecycle isn’t as well established here. There were certainly no other local groups, and Freecyle themselves weren’t helpful.  So one of the councillors set up a mini-site on the town’s website. It sort of works, but you couldn’t say we’ve exactly reached critical mass yet. In fact all Malcolm and I have managed to offer successfully have been some odd-shaped pillows which a local puppeteer thought might come in handy for something.

But maybe it doesn’t matter much. Informal Freecycling is alive and well.

One of those communal rubbish bins: no freebies here

Here, as in most of France, there’s no domestic refuse collection service for every home. Instead, householders take their rubbish to the communal bins situated in almost every street. What we discovered is that people who are discarding something that might still have some life in it place it outside the bin. And it won’t last long there. Last week we put out three old mirrors, a set of crockery (that I’d rescued from a skip in England not because I wanted it, but because I couldn’t bear to see it go to waste) and a bedside light. They were gone within half an hour. We recently acquired a good frying pan and a huge stock pot. As I rescued this last item, Malcolm noticed an indignant woman turn tail and go back home.  She’d clearly been thwarted in her plan to claim that same stock pot.

Now then, I’ve just found some of those old raffia covered wine bottles lurking in the atelier.  I think those can go out next.

Tomorrow’s local Freecycling opportunity

Our socially mobile terraced house: or ’génoises’ – a history

You might have thought we were pretty ordinary types living in an ordinary old terrace house – an ex-butcher’s shop for heaven’s sake – in a run-down ordinary little town.

Well, you’d be wrong.  This house, and the neighbouring ones, was built for minor nobility.  We haven’t scoured the archives or talked to the Oldest Inhabitant to find this out.  We just know.

And this is how we know.  Under the eaves of our houses are three rows of génoises, resembling a child’s drawing of ocean waves, but turned upside down.

Three rows of our génoises, underneath carefully picked out in terracotta paint to show them to full advantage

Back when our house was built, some time in the 18th century, the number of rows you were able to have denoted your social status. Artisans were permitted one row, shopkeepers two.  Minor nobility – ahem – three.  And if you were directly in the service of the king, then you could claim four rows.

You’ll see houses with génoises south of a line that runs pretty much from Bordeaux to Lyon.  It’s thought that the technique, which is Italian, was introduced firstly to Provence and then more widely, by artisans from Genoa round about the mid 17thcentury.

Here at Villar Saint Anselme in the Aude is a rare building with 4 rows of génoises. Look carefully: the swallows – no respecters of status – have built their nests on the undersides

By the nineteenth century, the social implication of the number of rows of génoiserie had pretty much disappeared: people contented themselves with one or two rows for decorative purposes.  We’ve seen our house on a late eighteenth century plan of Laroque, so we know the house, complete with génoises, must have been built by then.

And a family with pretensions to nobility lived in a tall, narrow terraced house?  Admittedly with some nice features, but still nothing fancy at all.  Well, inheritance laws in pre-Revolutionary France had estates divided up between all the heirs, so land and property became shared into decreasingly smaller parcels.  Families graced with extensive land and properties were few and far between.  This helps explain too why the agricultural revolution taking place in England from the 18th century took no hold in France.  Tiny farms resulted in small-scale farming and a near-impoverished peasantry.

And at some point, the house passed into the hands of the previous owners’ family and became a butcher’s shop.  Now it belongs to (almost) the only English in town.  Its noble origins are long forgotten.

Posh squash

Fetch up at our friend Peta’s on a summers day, and she’ll have thrust a cool glass of sophisticated, refreshing and home-made elderflower cordial into your hand before you’ve even had time to admire the garden.  Somehow, I’ve never got round to making it myself …. before this year.

Which is silly, because it’s too easy, and you can make several bottles of concentrated cordial for the price of a bag of sugar and a couple of lemons.  Oh, and a small amount of citric acid.  And there’s the rub.  I had a small pack left over from some project in England.  It’s all gone and now I’m trying to replace it.  Every chemist I’ve spoken here to has narrowed his or her eyes suspiciously and offered to order me half a kilo to arrive next week.  What CAN they think I’m up to?

Here’s Sophie Grigson’s recipe:


20 heads of elderflower, well shaken to remove any insects

1.8 kg. granulated sugar

1.2 litres water

2 unwaxed lemons

75 g. citric acid.


  • Heat the water and sugar to boiling point and stir till the sugar has dissolved.
  • Meanwhile pare the zest of the lemons in wide strips and put into a bowl with the elderflowers.
  • Slice the lemons, discard the ends and add the slices to the bowl.
  • Pour over the boiling syrup and add the citric acid.
  • Cover with a cloth and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
  • Next day, strain the cordial through a muslin-lined sieve, and pour into thoroughly clean bottles.  And it’s done.

And if you explore this link, you’ll find lots of ideas for using it.


‘Comment shoppez-vous?’

Stuck in a waiting room with a pile of magazines between me and my appointment time, my idea of hell is a choice between fashion mags and ones about cars.

Less so in France, at least as far as the fashion ones are concerned.  It’s not that I’m more interested in being stylish and chic here.  I simply have fun reading the articles and noting the ‘English’ words and phrases on almost every line.

Are you a sophisticated lady? Cool? Relax et sexyShow-off? Perhaps you aim for le twist sporty-glam, or like le mix et le match, le style ‘street’, or le fun et le trash.

Down at the shops are you looking for un look color block, le style boyish ou girly, arty-trendy, crazy doll, grungy girl?  If you’ve any sense, you’ll have made a shopping list, to make sure you come home with le jean,  le blazer, le trench, le legging, les shoes (with kitten-heel perhaps), and perhaps one or two it pièces.  Then you could really get to show off and expect le red carpet treatment.

When it comes to make-up, I hope you don’t like le make-up too much.  Light is so much more subtle.  If you’re a beauty addict perhaps you should be looking for un effet sixties, or un twist, using liner and shadowing your eyelids en smoky or flashy to achieve le total-look of your choice.  Then you’d look a real star.

It’s pretty exhausting really.  That’s why keeping up with fashion isn’t very high on my to do list.

Le twist sexy-glam as seen in ‘Le Figaro’

A ruined castle above spring flowers

We ‘do’ ruined castles here in this part of France.  And last Sunday we Laroquais from the walking group ‘did’ one that was new to us.

We went off to the Aude, near Rennes-le-Château, for a long morning’s march and a final energetic upward scramble to Bézu and the few castle ruins that are left there.

I was going to tell their story.  But then I found another blog to do the job for me.  Follow the link!  Some of the research here has been fostered by the – to me – unaccountable interest in Dan Brown’s books, but the page on Bézu is mercifully free of his influence.

I’d sooner simply share some of the photos of the day, many of them of the flowers we saw.  May, as in much of Europe, is a glorious time for them.  The dry, thin soil of this part of the Aude nourishes small, bright ground hugging plants: they show themselves off perfectly against a backdrop of alternately red and rather white earth.

I’m going to go on being lazy today.  If you can name the flowers so I don’t have to, I’d love to hear from you.

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Rencontre des chorales

Our Chorale at Laroque’s best friend is the Chorale at Mirepoix.  The Écoles de Musique in each town are best friends too, working together and running some joint classes and performances.

The chorales and other classes get together at least once every season to enjoy singing and playing for and with each other for an evening.  The public’s invited, and comes in encouragingly large numbers.

Those cannelés….

Last Friday, all the singers started wandering in shortly after 6, carrying carefully prepared dishes of buffet food.  The instructions were to bring no more than 6 portions, but nobody took any notice of that.  Robert from Laroque had made a pile of his deliciously chewy signature cannelés, Mirepoix’s William (yup, William’s a perfectly good French name) produced meringues, Mercedes’ plate was full of the cold meats and pâtés they make their charcuterie….and so on.

The rehearsal started, and was less a question of running through the songs than organising the logistics of moving around the dozens of us involved: Mirepoix’s orchestra, their children’s choir, the adult choirs from both towns.  It had to be done to a time-table, because nobody wanted to hurry over eating that buffet or sinking some wine.  ‘Don’t drink too much alcohol beforehand!’ urged Vanessa, our director ‘It’s bad for your singing voice’. I didn’t see anyone taking very much notice. ’Well really’, said Robert ‘How can you possibly eat cheese without a glass of wine to help it down?’

It had been more than 30 degrees for much of the day, so nobody wanted to come back indoors after the meal.  But we opened the windows, finished our preparations, and the audience drifted in for….oh, well before 9.10 for a 9.00 start.

Almost ready to start

The orchestra started things off.  Lots of percussion. All good stuff. I’m always a soft touch for children singing: these were well-rehearsed and sang with verve and enthusiasm.  Joined by the Mirepoix adult choir, they belted out numbers that were old favourites to the French audience and unknown to Malcolm and me.

And then it was our turn.  Our repertoire is a catholic one.  We sang everything from Henry VIII’s Pastime with Good Company (en français bien sûr) and Moon River (en français bien sûr) to old favourites (if you’re French that is) like Mon Amant de Saint Jean.

The Chorale de Laroque d’Olmes takes the stage

Nearly the end. Time for all the singers to join together for two final numbers.  A few weeks ago, Mireille had spent half an afternoon explaining one of them, Mistral Gagnant, to me.  It features a man singing to his daughter and the allusions to a host of sweets that form no part of my own youth – carambars, minthos and the mistrals gagnants themselves, had left me totally baffled, though not the rest of the audience.

In true French tradition, we couldn’t leave without doing an encore or two.  In true French tradition, we couldn’t leave – nobody could – without sharing the pot d’amitié.  A glass of something, a chance to meet and talk to friends: the perfect way to end a busy evening