Daffodils in the Dolomies

Yesterday, we walked in Les Dolomies, which you could confuse with the Dolomites with its craggy pillars and rocky outcrops: though actually it’s a small area between Lavelanet and Foix, just along from Roquefixade.  After a few days of hot sun and blue skies, it was disappointing to have the threat of rain, but the slight mistiness brought its own beauty to the landscape, softening the distant views, and enhancing the vibrant greens of the springtime meadows. Everywhere, blossom and flowers.

We walked upwards through the woods.  Anny and Maguy had a surprise for us.  And quite suddenly, there they were.  Daffodils.  Thousands and thousands of them, extending upwards over the hillside, tumbling over rocks, leaving not an inch of path for us to walk along.  The weather cleared. The sun came out.  We were entirely happy.

Come and share the walk with us, along blossom-laden paths, through the daffodil woods, and then down into the valley, looking across at those still snow-covered peaks.

To view any of these photos  full-size, click on the image.

Café society

A table in the sun, a moment shared with friends... French café life in the traditional style.
A table in the sun, a moment shared with friends… French café life in the traditional style.

Think of your last holiday in France, and it’ll probably include memories of a morning coffee and croissant in a cosy little bar, or of relaxing and people-watching with an evening pastis, sitting outside a café in some pretty sunlit square.   Hang on to those memories.

In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés and bars. Now there are fewer than 40,000.  Those characterful smoky rooms with dark wooden furnishings, and solitary men sitting at the bar nursing an early morning brandy are an endangered species.  All over France, cafés are closing at the rate of about 10 a week.  Blame TV, blame the smoking ban, , blame ‘la crise’, blame readily available alcohol in the supermarket.  Whatever the reason, many cafés can no longer make a go of it.

Take Laroque.  Our town of 2000 or so used to support more than half a dozen bars.  Now there are three, and they struggle.  Obé – that’s what everyone calls our Obelix look-alike – can’t make a living from half a dozen elderly men who come in most afternoons to nurse a single beer while they watch the afternoon’s horse racing.  But he can cook, so he’s reinvented the bar as Table d’Angèle, a successful lunch-time restaurant serving home-cooking, mainly to tradesmen looking for a once-a-week treat to break up a day’s plumbing, building or electrical work.

There we are.  That's Table d’Angèle.  And there's Obé's van.  He needs to offer outside catering too to bring home the bacon.
There we are. That’s Table d’Angèle. And there’s Obé’s van. He needs to offer outside catering too to bring home the bacon.

Down at Le Lounge, the owners have had to have a different strategy: food didn’t work for them.  They tried a traditional menu.  No good.  Then they had a go at offering an eat-all-you-can buffet.  When that failed, they tried Italian food.  Now there’s no lunch-time menu at all.  They make do with weekend trade, when sparkly lights and disco music attract the young people of the area before they head off for the Orient Express, the out-of-town nightclub at the once-upon-a-time station.

The Jingo’s still looking just about OK.  It’s on the main road and seems to get a steady enough stream of customers.  It may outlive the rest.

But bars can rise as well as fall.  When le Rendez-Vous in Léran, the village next door, came up for sale a few years back it was a hopeless case: dingy, unpopular and seemingly beyond rescue.  But an English couple who’d never run a bar in their lives bought it and made it the hub of village life.  Shirley cooks with imagination and flair – she even has that unknown round here menu item, the vegetarian dish.  Marek’s a cheerful and extremely hard-working host who’s always pleased to see you.  Quiz nights, open mic nights, a big screen to watch the rugby, a cosy corner with books to read and exchange….  It’s a winning formula, and both French and English from the village and beyond ensure the bar’s kept busy late into the evening, especially in the summer.

Le Rendez-Vous one busy evening in mid-summer.  There's an evening market in town too.
Le Rendez-Vous one busy evening in mid-summer. There’s an evening market in town too.

And over in Mirepoix, there’s another new café.  The Mad Hatter isn’t just another bar.  It’s hoping to cash in on the French love affair with things ‘so British’.  A nice cup of tea with a scone or slice of ginger cake might not be traditional French fare.  But it’s a welcome addition to café society, and yet another way in which the traditional French bar has to change, or sink without trace.

A welcome moment of calm, gazing out of the window over a cup of Earl Grey at The Mad Hatter, Mirepoix.
A welcome moment of calm, gazing out of the window over a cup of Earl Grey at The Mad Hatter, Mirepoix.

A man, a plan, a canal

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Pierre-Paul Riquet?  Who’s he?  He’s not much known in the UK, and I’m not sure how much of a household name he is in France either.

Pierre-Paul Riquet.  Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.
Pierre-Paul Riquet. Here he is, in the village of Bonrepos-Riquet.

But he should be.  He’s the brains behind the wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal du Midi.  This lovely and elegant canal, opened in 1681, is 240 km. long, and runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean.  It was built as a short cut from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage round Spain.  The idea had been discussed on and off since Roman times, but the problem was always the same.  How to deal with such hilly terrain and how to supply those hilly sections with enough water.

The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia
The Canal du Midi: a typical view, courtesy of Wikipedia

Riquet thought he had the answer.  Born in 1604 or 1609, he was a salt-tax collector.  Tax collecting was a rich man’s job: at that time, it involved paying all the monies due to the king up-front, and worrying about collecting from the relevant subjects later. A rich man can have a fine home, so Riquet set out to buy the ideal spot, and in 1652, he found it: the ancient but run-down Château de Bonrepos, near Toulouse.  It was a medieval building originally, fortified in the 16th century.  It interested him because it was a fine site, with splendid views of the Pyrenees (Not today: the weather was awful. Never saw the mountains at all through the gloom).  More importantly for him, the surrounding terrain, resembling parts of the nearby Montagne Noire, enabled him to conduct hydraulic experiments round an ancient fishpond on site from which he developed reservoirs and water-filled trenches replicating sections of the future Canal du Midi.  Bonrepos, then, was where he worked up his case for showing that the canal could after centuries of simply talking about it, become a reality.

The remnants of the mediaeval building interested him not at all.  He had a fine classical building built – 100 rooms.  Stone isn’t available locally, so it was built of Toulouse brick, and faced with stucco to hide this embarrassing fact: bricks were elsewhere the material of the poor.  He had formal gardens built, orchards, an orangery.  Every winter, an iceberg’s worth of ice was wrapped in hessian and floated from the Pyrenees to be stored in an excavated ice-house deep in the woodlands for use throughout the summer.

These days, the château is in a bad way.  The stucco’s falling off, the windows are rotted, and the internal decorations are absent or shabby.  The inhabitants of the small village where the château stands, Bonrepos-Riquet, bought the property some years ago, and while appealing for and attracting public and private funds, it also relies on monthly working parties of volunteers, who work enthusiastically in the house and grounds to stem the damage caused by wind and weather and to bring about improvements.

We visited today on one of Elyse Rivin’s informative Toulouse Guided Walks , which always focus on those corners of Toulouse and the surrounding area which you never knew about: you leave after her tour feeling an enthusiastic expert.  With input from the château’s own volunteer guides, steeped in the story of the place, we formed a picture of Paul Riquet himself.  He persuaded Louis XIV of his ability to master-mind the canal, and in 1661, work began, though he didn’t live to see the waterway opened as he died in 1680, leaving enormous debt and financial problems for his children who nevertheless continued the project.  The labourers – men and women, up to 12,000 of them – who built the canal were among the best paid workers in Europe, to the disapproval of other less philanthropic employers.  He insisted on provision being made for all aspects of their lives, from shops and refreshment to education and worship.

Those plane trees that line the canal.  They offered shade, then as now, to those who travel along it.  Their root systems bind the soil and offer stability to the canal, and the leaves don’t rot, so as they fall into the canal, they help make a waterproof base.  Sadly, these days those trees are afflicted by a virus.  One theory is that the wooden boxes which packaged American munitions in the war and were discarded along the canal, carried the infected spores and lay dormant for many years.

And there’s so much else.  Follow the links to get a fuller picture of the story, or better still, visit the Canal du Midi and Château Bonrepos, where this wonderful waterway was conceived and planned.

Catalonia visits southern France, bearing calçots

My daughter Emily’s just visited from her home in Barcelona, bringing her Catalan boyfriend, and an enormous bundle of calçots sent by his mother.

Calçots! Think we have enough?
Calçots! Think we have enough?

Eating calçots is a century-old tradition in Catalonia at this time of year.  Garden onions are planted deep in the soil, and earthed up throughout their growing period, so they have long thick white stems, just like a leek’s.  Harvested between Christmas and Easter, they’re a much appreciated local delicacy.

Really, they should be grilled fiercely over an open fire or barbecue.  We lack a barbecue, and in any case, southern France has its own traditions: Holy week is cold, wet and miserable.  Without fail.

Preparing the calçots
Preparing the calçots

So we settled for baking them in a fiercely hot oven.  And then we got down to the cheerfully messy business of eating them.  You strip the hot slippery skin off each calçot, and then dunk it in a punchy romanesco sauce before tipping your head back to ingest the lot.  You need napkins, yards of kitchen roll – bibs would be good –  and good bread to mop up the juices and sauce.

Serving the calçots.  Another break with tradition.  They should be on a terracotta roof tile.
Serving the calçots. Another break with tradition. They should be on a terracotta roof tile.

We had fun, but probably not as much as if we’d visited one of the outdoor festivals dedicated to the eating of these alliums.  Watch the video from Valls.

Eating the calçots.  No red wine for us.  The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal
Eating the calçots. No red wine for us. The calçot-bearers drove back to Barcelona straight after the meal

Donkey Derby

We were walking yesterday in glorious spring weather near a little village called Unac, quite near the winter sports area of Ax-les-Thermes.  Just outside the village, we spotted donkeys: eight of them.  They spotted us too.  They came to say ‘hello’.  And then they followed us.

Every field for miles about was theirs by the looks of things, because every time we rounded a corner, or scrambled higher up the craggy path, thinking we’d at last said our ‘goodbyes’ to them, there they were again, peering over the fence and hoping for carrots, which we failed to offer.

Someone remembered that they must come from La ferme aux ânes, in which case their job is to carry the baggage of any hikers who care to hire them.  But they weren’t working then.  Like us, they were enjoying the first day of spring.  They cheered our afternoon along no end.

A morning with Saint Pierre: two versions

Once there was a fine Roman city, Tolosa, and just outside its walls was a temple to one of their gods.  Over the centuries, the city became Toulouse, and where there was once a temple, there’s now a concert hall.  The building that was once outside the city walls is now quite definitely part of central Toulouse.  What happened in all those years in between?

The first thing was that in the 4th century the Romans left Tolosa, pursued by the Visigoths.  And Visigoth Christians (who resembled Cathars more than they did the official Catholic variety) used the temple site to build a simple church.  You can still see and visit its foundations today, and its ancient sarcophagi holding the bones of the long-dead.

This church building served its purpose for many years, until the 10th century, when the count of Toulouse gave it over to the Benedictine order whose most important monastery in the area was at Moissac.  And they built and extended the church which was and is known as Saint Pierre des Cuisines.  Nothing to do with kitchens.  The word is a corruption of the word ‘coquinis’ – artisans, of whom there were many in the busy streets nearby.

Over the years, the church became more important as a parish church to the local population, rather than as a centre of worship for the Benedictines, so in the 16th century, the church became the property of the silent order of Cistercians.  18 monks had the use of the church and surrounding land and buildings.  Their simple uncluttered contemplative life was in stark contrast to that of the nearby citizens of Toulouse, crammed into the narrow overcrowded streets where they lived and worked.

The church continued to be used as a religious building until the Revolution.  Then, as for so many other churches, another secular use had to be found for it.  And one was.  The nearby arsenal was the local home of the army, and they took over the building to use it for … cannon ball manufacture.  When this slightly inglorious use for the building came to an end, it remained unused until the University of Toulouse took it over during the 20th century.  Eventually the funds were found to restore it, and the building is now a concert hall with magnificent acoustics.  So it’s now an established asset of the conservatoire, and part of that area of the university campus still known as the ‘arsenal’, in memory of its history.

It’s a beautiful and austerely simple building from the Romanesque and early Gothic periods, and a contrast with the other church we went to see just round the corner.  This church, Saint Pierre des Chartreux was begun in 1612 to meet the needs of the Cistercians who had moved to the site.  It has a very unusual feature.  The high altar is right in the middle of the nave.  Why?  So the parishioners could worship at one end of the church without being able to see the contemplative Cistercians at the other end of the building.  Much of the church is decorated in restrained grey and white stucco work, though there are stained glass windows by Louis-Victor Gesta, whose work is in several city churches, and ancient hammered ironwork.

Whilst in the area, walk round the corner and see the remains of the old Cistercian cloisters. Little is left, but there’s enough to show that a meditating monk would get a decent work-out by doing a single circuit.

And now it’s time to wander off and explore the little streets nearby: you’re never far from a lunch-spot in Toulouse.

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We discovered these monuments and learnt their story courtesy of Elyse Rivin and one of her Toulouse Guided Walks.  

Laroque: a town tour

Laroque: a roofscape.
Laroque: a roofscape.

Here you are reading my blog: and the chances are that you’ve never visited Laroque.

Let’s go for a stroll then, and get to know the place a bit.  You may think, when you’ve seen the photos, that the town is quite shabby-chic.  It’s not.  For the most part, Laroque is just plain shabby.  It’s going through tough times, and it shows.  Underneath it all, though, are characterful buildings, streets with a story, and even places that are enjoying a prosperous renaissance.  Let’s set off from our house at the edge of the old town, and walk up Rue de la Joie……