A day at the quarry

The other day, we went to RaissacThere’s a quarry there:We looked at rocks.  We looked at big stones.  We looked at smaller stones:We chose gravel.And a man (no, not Malcolm) with a grab scooped up the best part of 500 kilos of the stuff, and dumped it in our trailer, for us to drive cautiously home with.‘How much do we owe you?’

Gallic shrug.  ‘Whatever you feel like paying.’

‘We really have no idea.  Give us a clue.’

’10 euros?’

Not bad, eh, for an almost unmanageable load of gravel

What do we need it for?  Well, you’ll just have to wait and see

From the northern US to southern France: Blue Lake International Jazz Band

If you’re young, American, and living in Michigan, and if you like performing, you may be lucky enough to spend part of your summer at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, a summer school of the arts located on a 1300 acre campus in the Manistee National Forest.  If you’re really talented and work hard, you may one year be selected for one of the 8 or so ensembles that have been coming over for a European tour every year since 1969.

And if you live in Europe, you may be lucky enough to live in one of those towns that welcome these young people. Here at Laroque, we’re among those fortunate people.

The Blue Lake Jazz Ensemble first came here 2 years ago. Their director, David Jensen, and the leader of our own LDO Big Band, Michel Alvarez, hit it off.  So when plans for this year were under way, both men were keen to see Laroque included in the itinerary.

But what an itinerary!  The band landed in Paris on 17th June.  From Elbeuf in Normandy, they passed through Belgium to reach Germany, Denmark, Germany again, then Austria.  Then they travelled 1588 km to reach Laroque d’Olmes, a coach journey that took a whole 24 hours.  After staying with us, they were due to travel overnight to Paris and the plane home on July 9th.

Party at the Château

They might have been tired, punch-drunk with cultural variety and new experiences, but they had to be welcomed with a party.  It was here they met their host families.  What would two 16 year old boys make of the fact that they got to stay with us instead of a French family?  Pleased, as it happens.  Grappling with unknown languages – French, German, Danish over 3 weeks or so takes its toll.  At least we were a bit of a rest.

The concert on Thursday evening was what we were all looking forward to.  Well, not me so much.  Malcolm had provided translation and interpreting services last time, so this year, he thought it should be my turn.

LDO Big Band get ready to play
Translation services in full swing

All went well at first:  I’d seen Michel’s speech in advance, and David’s response contained no surprises. But when it came to introducing the pieces….well…what IS the French for ‘Dance of denial’? Or ‘Struttin’ with some barbecue’?  We decided the titles didn’t matter; I bowed out, and then discovered the remaining repertoire was quite translatable, thank you.

Blue Lake Jazz Band

But those Americans!  The performance they turned in was exciting, exhilarating, excellent, extraordinary.  Impossible to believe that some of the group were only 13, and that few had left High School.  They’re so professional.   LDO Big Band was on form too, so the high spot of the evening was when the two bands came together to perform.  Their pleasure and pride in working together communicated itself to an already delighted audience, and the evening ended on a high for us all.

The two bands squeeze together to play

This opportunity to play together is apparently what makes little old Laroque worth the detour for the Blue Lake musicians: it’s not something they do elsewhere.  They’d like to send a different band our way next year, David’s year off.  It seems Laroque is now firmly on the Michigan map.

…. conquered by our American guests

The rest of the stay was given over to sleep, lots of it, and sightseeing, rather less of that.  We climbed Roquefixade to see a ruined castle, and took in the medieval town of Mirepoix. Others had different days-of-yore experiences:  Foix and Carcassonne.

The trip ended on a sad note though.  One of the group had lost her passport, and despite every effort, it couldn’t be replaced in time.  She’s still here.

Loading the bus for departure

Lost in Translation

Umbrellas sheltering the unjust?

The rain it raineth every day

Upon the just and unjust fellah:

But more upon the just because

The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

This daft ditty came into my head as a sudden shower threatened to stop our concreting efforts in the yard – we’re nearly ready to show you the final result – watch this space.  And I thought – ‘If you, dear English reader of my blog, had been here with us, whether you know that verse or not, you’d probably have come up with some doggerel of your own – a nursery rhyme perhaps’:

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester

In a shower of rain.

He stepped in a puddle

Right up to his middle,

And never went there again.

And then I realised that if instead you’d been with me, dear French reader, I wouldn’t have been talking about ‘just and unjust fellahs’ at all: lost in translation doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m finding that more and more, I’m missing that shared cultural experience. By culture, I don’t mean the literature, the art and so on. To an extent you can mug up your Molière, get up to date with Gavalda.

One potato, two potato, three potato, four….

I mean the shared heritage we all grow up with from childhood. In France I don’t know the equivalent of that whole children’s choosing routine that involves ‘one potato, two potato, three potato, four…..’, or ‘ip dip dip, my little ship, sailing on the water, like a cup and saucer…..’

I don’t know how to criticise someone’s persistently down-beat attitude other than by telling them not to be such a Tony Hancock. Or a Grumpy Old Man.

Anyone in the UK, I guess, would immediately understand ‘I speak English. I learn it from a book’. That’s Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Astonishingly, a French woman actually said that to me last week. How could I have explained, if I’d given in to the almost uncontainable urge to burst out laughing?

Then there are all those people we feel we almost know, but who are probably unknown abroad. Anne Widdecombe and other politicians like her have gone from Scourge of The Left to National Treasure in the blink of an eye.  In France, who cares?  People like me rely on the likes of Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson to come up with new ideas for Thursday’s meal.  Who does the job in France?

I’ve not heard programmes like ‘The News Quiz’ on French radio.  It would be lost on me if I had.  But then I can read ‘Private Eye’ with some enjoyment and comprehension.  ‘Le Canard Enchainé’?  Not a chance

Mine is the popular culture of an already bygone age. I know cream’s ‘naughty but nice’, and that ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’ (it isn’t), but in the right company, I understand and am understood.  Of course I’m not really complaining that I can’t go round France talking in clichés.  What I do mind is that here, I don’t recognise the allusions that I do hear, and I certainly can’t make them myself. It’ll simply have to remain a closed book (or switched off TV).

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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Summer solstice, Montségur

All this time we’ve been here, we’ve not seen the sunrise over Montsegur.  Today, midsummer day, I decided to change all that.  Me and 99 others……

I arrived at the car park just after 5 o’clock,  at the same moment as a hare which had for at least two frantic minutes been trying to out-run me.  And realised I was not alone.  It was still dark, and quite a difficult business to trek up a steep, slippery rocky path.  Other more provident people had torches, and everybody helped one another.

The route to the top. Still pretty dark

Towards the top, the night sky was slowly washed from inky blue to delicate blues, pinks and greens by the sun which was still well below the horizon.

The sun first appears. It’s just after 6 o’clock

I found a couple of friends there, and a vantage point relatively distant from the crowd crammed into the castle ruins.  They had come to see something special- the rays of the sun as they poured through the ruined windows.  I decided it was too packed with people to feel special in there.  I’ll come back another day soon, to see for myself.

And again, a very few minutes later

What I saw was quite wonderful enough: a rich copper disk slowly mounted above the line of mountains in the distance,  tinting the sky ochre, rusty-red, sugar-pink, finally emerging so fiery bright I could no longer look at it.  Some locals burst – quite beautifully – into song.   Occitan/Ariègeois stalwarts, ‘Quand lo Boièr ven de laurar…’ and,inevitably, ‘Se Canto’.

The rising sun, shining through a ruined window, casts an image on the castle wall

Gradually the whole sky lightened and brightened, turning the entire landscape crisply clear.  I strolled round the summit – it was surprisingly easy to get-away-from-it-all, before skidding and climbing my way down to the car park again….

Montségur casts a shadow on the hillsides beyond. The car park’s still full.

….and there were my companions who’d provided torchlight.  They were hitching, because their car had failed to start.  We journeyed back to civilisation together, ready to resume normal service.  It was 7.30 a.m.

Almost deserted again, Montségur in the early morning light

La Remise des Diplômes.

Over the decades, Laroque has enjoyed a reputation as a musical town.  With hardly more than 2000 inhabitants, and horribly in debt, it still nourishes its Music Centre.  Children (some adults too) come first of all to sing, then perhaps to try their hand at an instrument, before moving on to play in ensembles, the orchestra, or the regionally well-regarded LDO Big Band.  Some people make a family thing of it.

The littlest children of all take centre stage

The baker, for example, is always there at rehearsals and concerts with his trumpet, and his daughters joined him some time ago: wind instruments are their preferred choice.  Louis in the choir plays the sax as well as singing with us.  His son’s pretty good on the piano, and now his wife’s decided it’s not too late to learn to play the organ.  The Ribas family turn out singers, percussionists, and sound technicians….and so on.

Last night was prize-giving time for the Music Centre, la Remise des Diplômes.

What is it about boys and percussion?

Everybody had their chance to be heard on stage: even our choir, la Chorale des Adultes, and we didn’t even get any certificates.  The children, however, had endured exams, so it was only fair that they should have diplomas for their efforts.  Lots of them got ‘mention bien’, ‘mention très bien’, and even ‘félicitations du jury’.

They seemed pretty happy to be there, even before they got their prized bits of paper.  A good evening for Laroque

Diplomas awarded: everybody happy