Snow shoes at Scaramus revisited

I wrote this post six years ago, when we still lived in France.  Winters were winters there, as what follows testifies …. though there too, they’re no longer the affairs they once were when our Ariègeois friends were small, when schoolchildren marched to school down head-high channels excavated into the snow.  This winter here in England, we’ve celebrated the occasional crisp frost, and a couple of days of snow, quickly melted.

This is the Real Thing.

Scaramus, Plateau de Sault, Aude: February 17th, 2013

It’s only 7 o’clock, but  I can’t see me having a late night.  We’ve had a day of ‘raquettes’ – snow shoes.  Gosh it’s exhausting.  You strap great oval saucers of plastic, webbing, and toothed metal to your feet and spend some minutes feeling like an ungainly baby taking its first uncertain footsteps across the endless wastes of the living room carpet.

Booted and spurred.

But equilibrium returns, and without these cumbersome contraptions, how else would you walk across the undulating white snowfields of the Plateau de Sault, with views of snow-sculpted hillsides nearby, jagged snow-crusted peaks beyond?  How else could you enjoy the sound of the satisfying crunch and crack as feet break through the crisp crust of the surface snow?  Thank goodness for that icy layer.  We found our 5’ long batons, plunged deep below the surface, wouldn’t touch the frozen ground beneath.

And with a bright blue sky, a hot sun enabling us to walk wearing T shirts and summer hats, what better way to spend a February Sunday?

Click on any image to see it full size.

Two walks: the last walks?

This post is really just a chance  to post a few photos from a couple of recent walks, one in the Ariège, and one in the Aude.  Each walk brought out some of the contrasts and similarities between  the two Départements.

The more local walk, near Ventenac last Sunday, was near meadows where cattle grazed, through fields being prepared for sowing feed crops such as maize, and through oak and beech forest.  Though there are villages dotted about, the area is still thinly populated, densely forested.  During the Second World War it provided cover for the Spanish Maquis , scourge of the German army.  With the support of many, but not all locals,  the Maquis came to regard the area as a centre of gravity, from which they emerged to pass soldiers and refugees across the mountains, and to organise acts of resistance to German occupation . You’ll find monuments to their activities, their battles, their acts of martyrdom all over the area.  It’s easy to see how, in this large territory, with under-developed links of communication, the Germans had such difficulties keeping tabs on the Maquis’ whereabouts.

Over in the Aude on Thursday, near Esperaza, we saw no farm animals, but our path took us past vineyards where the vines were being hard-pruned ready for 6 months of vigorous growth and grape production.  Martine, from a wine-producing family, explained some of the different methods of pruning  – and there are dozens.  Older varieties of vine, unsupported by wires, may be pruned with an open centre, so the core looks almost like a bowl.  Other kinds of grape usually require training along wires: all sorts of schools of thought here.  These days, much harvesting is mechanical.  Martine’s family send their grapes to a wine co-operative for processing.  This co-operative sends an oenologist every year to analyse their grapes and those of all the other members of the cooperative.  Then he will book everybody a two-day spot with the mechanical harvester at what he believes to be the optimum moment for their particular harvest.  Few grapes cannot be harvested in this way, but the local Blanquette de Limoux is one.  Its low-growing grapes are unsuited to mechanical methods.  With wine-production the main agricultural industry, the villages here have a properous air to them.

Both walks shared a fair bit up uphill (and therefore downhill) marching.  And in both cases, the rewards were in the views of the distant Pyrenees, still covered in snow.  In the Ariège, you’ll be looking to recognise the peaks of Saint Barthélemy and  Soularac, whereas in the Aude, you’ll have no difficulty in recognising Bugarach looming above the surrounding peaks.

These last walks are bitter-sweet.  We’re enjoying them, but not enjoying the fact that, for the time being, there are (almost) no more to come.

The Windy Hills

About a year ago, someone suggested ‘Les Collines du Vent’ – the Windy Hills – for one of the Sunday walks with our Laroque walking group.  The appointed day came, and it rained – a lot. We re-scheduled.  The day came again, and it rained – a lot.  We re-scheduled.  The day came yet again, and it was foggy, a real pea-souper: the kind of fog that almost any Frenchman confidently assures us blankets London every day of the year (any Frenchman who’s read Charles Dickens that is).

And so it went on for five or six attempts.  Today though, it didn’t rain.  Nor was it foggy.  In fact it was sunny until we left the Ariège and approached our destination in the hilly countryside in the Aude outside Castelnaudary.  Then it became rather grey, though not menacing enough to stop us in our tracks.  What DID nearly stop us in our tracks was the wind.  The countryside here is rolling and open.  The idea of any walk in the area is to get up there and stride from hilltop to hilltop.  But that wind!  It gusted and blew.  It snatched us off-balance.  It whistled through our trousers and tried to grab our hats.  And it was only doing what it apparently does almost every day of the year.  No wonder our path led us past a windmill during the afternoon.

The weather brightened, and we had wonderful all-round panoramas.  Sadly we couldn’t quite see the Pyrenees: distant mists saw them off.  And in the early afternoon, we had evidence that we really were the tough guys we thought we were, battling through that wind.  We were overtaken by a battalion of the French Foreign Legion in training.  Though admittedly they were all additionally burdened by enormous rucksacks that must have weighed 40 kilos.  And guns.  If you’ve read  ‘Beau Geste’ you will remember that this band of soldiers is recruited from foreign nationals who wish to serve in the French army (don’t ask….).  Coming from different countries, different cultures, the men are put through very challenging training designed to build their esprit de corps.  We noted that Marcel, our leader for the day was putting us through a similar programme.  Though at the end, he offered us a large slice of the Galette des Rois which he himself had made.  We’d already had our usual lunch time bonanza of wine-and-cake-sharing.  But nobody refused this last additional treat.  We felt we’d earned it.

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It’s not about the view…..

Well, not much anyway.  You can’t go walking in that patch of the Aude near la Digne d’Amont and not enjoy looking at those vineyards marching across to the snow-covered Pyrenees one way, and the equally distant (and almost equally snow-covered) Montagne Noir the other.

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Today though, let’s not have a travelogue.  Let’s look at one or two of the other things that caught our eye on today’s walk, sunny but oh-so-cold.  We began walking in temperatures of not much more than minus 5 degrees. There was the ice itself, underfoot.  The cold froze the mud and made it good and hard to walk on.


There were the frost-framed leaves mulching the ground.


There was a giggle-worthy notice on an electricity sub-station.


And in  the tiny village of Toureilles (population 143), there was a statue to its most famous son.  Pierre Bayle (1783-1794) was the youngest soldier ever to die for France.  A drummer boy in the Republican Army, he was engaged in the campaign to prevent the Spanish invade Roussillon, and died in battle at Figueres, aged 11.


As we left Toureilles, along a single track road , we came upon a rather fine, wide, but very short stretch of road, with a fine stretch of car park along its length.  It led only to a dusty track.If we didn’t know why it was there, neither did the villagers.  Here’s what they thought of it.

Back in Digne d’Amont, the municipal notice board had news of an evening’s Bingo (Loto) on – shucks, we’ve missed it – 16th November.  Prizes?  Two loads of wood for burning,  a whole pig (dead, of course) and a hamper of beef as well as other smaller prizes.


And at the end, Gilbert produced a cake for us to eat,  formerly much enjoyed locally and which he’d managed to find out about: amazérat, a pastry with a solid bite to it and strongly flavoured with aniseed.

Gilbert's amazérat
Gilbert’s amazérat

Harvest home…..

Fields near Villelongue.  A grey summer's morning.
Fields near Villelongue. A grey summer’s morning.

….. next month.

We were walking in the Aude today, and with every step we took, we realised that harvest season is well on its way.
Sorghum grains for animal feed swelled in fields where last year sunflowers had grown.  A few seeds had escaped the Autumn harvest, and so this year a few cheeky sunflowers raised their heads above the more lowly winter feed.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Sunflowers among the sorghum.
Grapes cluster  on the vine. They’ve grown almost as much as they intend, but they still have work to do.  Most are still a bright acidic green.  A few are starting to blush a bruised pink.  Some have even achieved a classic purple: but they’re not ripe yet.  We know.  We tried one or two.
And those fields of sunflowers,  Apart from one field’s worth, they no longer look like those cheerful images you see on postcards from our region.  Their bright sunny faces no longer track the movement of the sun as it travels across the sky.  Instead, they’ve developed a hang-dog look as the weight of their maturing seeds pulls their heads earthwards.
Then there were almonds.  We found a few had fallen already, so made a handful of creamy nuts into a small 11 o’clock treat.  Walnuts are a different matter. They’re still heavily enclosed in their thick green fleshy coats.  It’ll be a few weeks before this protection dries and splits to reveal the ripened nuts within.
Apples?  Yes, a few, but they’re still green, with white flesh that browns as soon as it’s bitten into.  Blackberries?  Hardly any have turned black.  They’re still very small and green, or rather small and pink.  We’ll have to wait.
So far then, only the hay bales sit plumply at the edges of the fields, ready for winter. The other crops soak up the remaining summer sunshine, fatten, ripen, and wait for the moment when they too will be gathered in.
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d'Aude
Fields of vines and sunflowers near Villelongue d’Aude

Butterfly bonanza

I’ve never been all that good at butterfly spotting.  Back in the UK, I could manage my red admirals, peacock butterflies and cabbage whites.  Oh yes, I could certainly identify those pesky cabbage whites.  Their eggs were usually plastered over the undersides of nearly every vegetable I had on my allotment.

On Sunday though, we had a real butterfly bonanza.  We had a perfect day’s walking on the nearby Plateau de Sault, near Belcaire.  It was perfect because the scenery was friendly: gently rising and falling lightly forested slopes offered distant panoramas of the Pyrenees.  The wonderful weather was bright and sunny, without being too hot. The walk offered challenges but no real difficulty; good companionship too.  What made this Sunday memorable though were the butterflies.  At this altitude – about 1000 metres – the summer flowers were still bright and fresh, and the butterflies couldn’t leave them alone.  They fluttered ahead of us every step of the way, and we finally gave up exclaiming over their delicate beauty.

What we couldn’t do was identify them.  This evening I’ve pored over sites on the internet.  I’ve excitedly identified a specimen.  Then I’ve looked at the next image… and the next… and realised that my confident identification isn’t at all secure.  Tentatively, then, I’ve named my photos.  But I rely on you, dear reader, to put me right about the undoubted mistakes I’ve made.

In the end though, whether I’ve been able to name them or not, I carry with me the memory of a summer’s day made extra special by the presence of those butterflies  wheeling, turning, diving and fluttering, rarely still, but constantly engaging our admiration and attention

Fireworks at Puivert

Late on Wednesday afternoon we went to Puivert.  Why not? It’s a pretty town not far from here, with a beach beside a charming lake.  

When we arrived at 5 o’clock, the car park was already almost full.  We weren’t surprised.  Nobody was leaving the beach: in fact, like us, dozens of people were making tracks for it, burdened with swimming gear, beach towels, fold-up chairs, picnic hampers.
We were getting there early, to make sure of a grand-stand view. After the regular summer-Wednesday-evening market, there was going to be a firework display, and we knew it would be good.  We picked our spot under a tree and near the lake.  Nearby, a musician set up his stall, and his balladeering (think Simon and Garfunkel) helped while away the evening.  A spot of swimming (not for me, not this time) a spot of people watching, and soon it was time to think about food.  About half those market-traders had set up stoves and ovens and complicated gas-rings and were busy slicing, stirring, grilling, frying and baking to provide meals for the hundreds of us who planned to eat ‘sur place’ as the evening wore on and darkness fell.  What to choose. Local grilled meat?  Tapas? Pizza? Something salady?  Paella?  Something oriental?  Wandering round in a state of terminal indecision’s part of the fun.
We chose paella, Susie and I, our young companions went Chinese, and we all finished off with sheep’s milk ice-cream (rose petal’s very good, so’s speculoos).
Then it was time to move nearer the water, listen to the nearby singer and the croaking frogs, and wait for darkness.
I enjoy fireworks.  But about 10-15 minutes is usually enough.  There are only so many rockets and golden fountains you can exclaim over.  This though, was different.
As it became truly night, laser beams (‘testing, testing’) drew blue lines and beams across the darkness.  White smoke emerged from large pipes at the water’s edge, and billowed softly across the lake.  What on earth?
Then it began.  Laser beams drew architect’s plans in the sky.  These futuristic ‘buildings’ revealed clouds above them: ah!  That’s what the smoke was for.  And above them, orange and red firework fountains dripped from the sky, seen through the ‘ceilings’ and the clouds.  The laser drawings slipped and slid, plunged and dived, in an ever-changing palette of electric blues, citric greens, livid yellows and magenta.  The fireworks went relentlessly on, mirroring the insistent rhythms of dramatic, dynamic music which seemed to herald the Apocalypse.  I don’t know how to describe how utterly involving and exciting it was.  My camera – no camera – begins to do justice to that extraordinary marriage of lightshow and fireworks.
After 20 minutes, it stopped. Just like that.  We held our collective breath, utterly silent, hundreds of us.  And then we applauded, wildly, recognising the genius of what we’d just seen, and knowing that an encore simply wasn’t going to happen.  Not this year.
It was, quite simply, one of the most exciting and compelling spectacles I’ve seen.  Ever.

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Monks, marble, and a look-alike church

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Here in Laroque , we have a Commission du Patrimoine, attached to the town council.  It has many enthusiastic and knowledgeable members who seek to preserve, restore and celebrate certain historic buildings, who manage the municipal archives, who research (for instance) the history of the area’s farms and who organise exhibitions.  It has other members who are like me, frankly, free-loaders.  We trot along to meetings but have little expertise to offer.  But we were all in favour of the day out organised last Saturday.

We started off in Caunes-Minervois, a small town in the Aude.  Most of us associate the Minervois with wine production, and we’re not wrong.    I didn’t know though that near Caunes Minervois there are important marble quarries, worked since Roman times.  It seems half the important buildings in Paris sourced their marble there … the Louvre, les Invalides, l’Opéra…. and then there are Fontainebleu and Versailles too.   It rivals Carrara in importance and marble is quarried here still: many colours, but mainly a rather plummy pink.

We came though to visit the Benedictine Abbey.  There’s been an abbey here since 790, and though the Carolingian buildings have long gone, the crypt, with early sarcophagi, remains beneath the present church.  It’s a rotten site  for a church in many ways, prone to an excess of water immediately below ground, so the four Christian martyrs whose relics are venerated here are targets for prayer that drought should not strike.  Have devotees been praying just a little too fervently this year?

The Abbey has had a long and complex religious and political history which you can read about here. We started by visiting the 17th century cloisters, austere and simple, as befits a building used by the Benedictine order. Then there’s another vaulted room in the complex with an interesting feature. Stand in a corner and whisper your confession, and the sound will travel up to the roof, over and down the other side into the ear of the listening priest.  He will be able to offer you absolution by whispering from his corner, in the knowledge that if you are carrying the plague, or some other contagious disease he’s at a safe distance from you.  We all tried it.  It works – the whispering that is.

The abbey became simply a parish church at the time of the French Revolution. From outside, it’s a fine Romanesque and early Gothic building, in a spacious uncluttered setting – the buildings that used to huddle up to it have been removed.  Within, it’s a temple to the local marble, and to that of Carrara: there are even Italian statues owing something to the school of Michelangelo.  Much of the former monastery is now used as space for art exhibitions.

Then it was off to lunch.  Another treat.  Not far from the village is another small  church, Notre Dame du Cros.  It’s in a splendid setting, in a gorge surrounded by craggy rocks.  Stone tables and benches were there beneath the shady plane trees and we had one of those shared picnics the French do so well: home made apéritifs, home cured sausage, home made pies and cakes, home grown fruit, wine…..

And then it was time for the look-alike church.  Still in the Minervois, there’s another village, Puicheric.  Its parish church bears a remarkable resemblance to ours here in Laroque.  Hence our visit.  Puicheric’s church, though, has a more intimate, homely feel.  This turns out to be because during the 19th century, those responsible for the church at Laroque had delusions of grandeur, encouraged by the likes of Viollet-le-Duc who promoted Gothic architecture in buildings where such features had never previously existed.  The roof height was raised, at vast expense, to create a more ‘Gothic’ feel to the building.

Nevertheless, Notre-Dame de Puicheric has a claim to fame as a place of pilgrimage.  Back in 1700 a marble staue of the Madonna was being shipped from Italy along the Canal du Midi, past Puicheric, bound for some fine church in Aquitaine.  Once in Puicheric, the barge could go no further, detained by some irresistible force.  The statue was taken to the church, and there it remains to this day, an object of veneration.

And then there’s the château.  Laroque had a castle once too, and we still have the odd remaining bit of wall.  Simon de Montfort saw that off, as so many other things round here.  Puicheric’s still looks very imposing – from round the back.  From the other side, what you get is a rather splendid chambres d’hôtes.  It had an aristocratic past, though much of the original site was destroyed by our very own Black Prince in 1355.  It housed the nobility until the French Revolution and then passed into the hands of a family with whom it remained until 1990.  Now it’s the home and business of Dominica and Phillippe Gouze, who aim to offer modern hospitality whilst retaining all those elements from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and long before that which inform its character.  We were seduced by the garden, the views, the ancient tower with a faded fresco of someone doing something dreadful to a dragon, and by the story-telling powers of our host.

While we were there, we could have seen so much more, as clicking through the links would reveal.  But that will have to be for another day ….  or two ….. or three.

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Vines at Villelongue & the martyrs of the mudslick

A winter walk near Villelongue d’Aude.  It’s vineyard country, and the vines are stark and bare just now, the countryside colours muted.  I’ll only tell two stories about the day, because the photos can do the rest.  One is about Sainte Barbe, whose chapel we visited at the end of the day.  The other is about how she failed to protect us when we were in the precincts of her chapel.

Sainte Barbe lived round about the 8th century.  Her father Dioscore, a local dignitary, seems to have been a somewhat strict and unbending man.  He had a tower built to imprison his daughter, to protect her from the advances of handsome young suitors. Once, he went away, and she took advantage of his absence to make a third window in her prison tower, to commemorate the Holy Trinity.  Well, that’s the story.

Her father returned, and in a fury, denounced her to the local prefect.  Then he tortured her and decapitated her with his own hands.  But as he returned home, he got his come-uppance.  He was struck by lightning and carbonised.

Barbe was canonised and is ready to protect you, if you ask her, from flames and lightning strikes.  Nowadays she’s a patron saint too – of fire-fighters, miners, and bomb disposal experts.  And she has this chapel near Villelongue where we made our own pilgrimage.

Well, despite the fine weather the other day, the ground there is still waterlogged.  As Anny discovered when she came to try to drive off as we left the chapel.  Her wheels stuck.  They spun dizzily round.  They embedded themselves deeper and deeper into the mud.  We all gathered vine clippings to give the mud-slathered wheels better purchase.  We pushed.  Malcolm got caught by a pulsing stream of mud ejected by the spinning wheels.  We pushed some more, and eventually, had success.  We grumbled a great deal at Sainte Barbe, because she didn’t help us at all.  I think she was a little unfair.  If we’d been stuck there much longer, I think we’d have called out the fire brigade, and then, surely, she’d have to have helped.